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Pretend play and its links to children's emotional experience, expression and regulation



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Rao, Zhen 


Background: Emotional development is closely related to children’s mental health. Despite a close link theorised between pretend play and emotional development, empirical evidence is limited and restricted to early childhood. This study investigates how pretend play among 7- to 10-year-old Chinese children is linked to their emotional experience, expression and regulation. Links between appraisal and emotional experience, children’s motivations for showing and hiding emotions, and emotion regulation strategies are also examined. Age, gender and contextual differences in these factors were also explored.

Design: A mixed methods design was used. Data were collected on 136 Chinese children (Mage = 8.97, SD = .97), including self-report of emotional experience and expression, peer-report of emotion regulation, video observation of play in friendship pairs, and vignette-based interview about emotional appraisals, motivations for showing/hiding emotions and strategies of emotion regulation.

Analysis: Transcripts of the interviews were analysed thematically and associations between appraisal and emotion were explored quantitatively. Multilevel modelling was used to test hypothesised age and gender differences in pretend play. An Actor-Partner Interdependence Model (APIM) was used to test hypothesised links between pretend play and emotional experience, expression and regulation.

Results: Similar to findings in other cultures, anger was found to be associated with causal/blame appraisal, sadness with loss/helplessness, fear/worry with potential punishment/threat, and happiness/OK with problem-solving/positive appraisal. Children reported greater willingness to show emotions in a peer context compared to a family context. “Other-protective” motivations for hiding emotion were reported more by older children than by younger children, and more in a family context than in a peer context. Eleven emotion regulation strategies were identified, with older children reporting broader repertoires of emotion regulation strategies than did younger children.

Older children engaged in less frequent pretend play than younger children, but their pretend play was characterised by a higher occurrence of social themes. Boys created significantly more aggressive and non-aggressive negative pretend themes than girls. The less willingness children reported to show their emotions to others in daily life, the more frequently they engaged in pretend play. Children whose play partners reported more frequent general experiences of negative emotions in daily life were found to engage in more emotional pretend themes. Children whose play partners were rated by peers as worse-tempered were found to engage in more aggressive pretend themes.

Discussion: This is the first study to use APIM to explore pretend play in Chinese children. It furthers understanding of the relations between appraisal and emotion, and, highlights the function of age, gender and context in children’s emotional expression and associated motivations. It suggests that pretend play may serve as an important alternative way for children to express their emotions. Emotional pretend themes may serve the function of emotion regulation when children play with partners who experience more negative emotions. Aggressive pretend themes may serve as a vehicle for emotion regulation when children play with partners who are less able to regulate anger.





Gibson, Jenny


Pretend play, middle childhood, Chinese children, Emotional experience, emotional expression, emotion regulation, appraisal, APIM, pretend themes, friendship dyads, vignette-based interview, observation


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
China Scholarship Council