Poster Paper: Pretend Play in Early Childhood Programs: A Case for Evidence-Based Program Implementation and Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships

Thursday, November 8, 2018
Exhibit Hall C - Exhibit Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Brittany Thompson and Thalia R. Goldstein, George Mason University

With increasing achievement-oriented demands on preschools, it is difficult to prioritize pretend play as part of the curriculum. This is particularly important as children tend to regress to simplistic play that involves little social interaction or complexity when teachers do not assist in achieving more complicated play (Bodrova, Gemeroth, & Leong, 2013). Successful interventions, with positive effects for behavior, language development, and social skills, tend to include teacher’s assisting children in pretend play (Barnett et al., 2008; Dansky, 1980; Diamond, Barnett, Thomas, & Munro, 2007). Such complex pretend play is further linked with positive child outcomes, such as following directions, taking turns, and communicating effectively with others (Lillard et al., 2013), skills emphasized by kindergarten teachers as important for school readiness (Lin, Lawrence & Gorrell, 2003).

We propose that teachers should be trained to understand a child’s developmental level of pretend and scaffold play to help children advance. Guided play, which involves a mixture of child autonomy and teacher support, is helpful for children’s learning of new concepts (Weisberg, Hirsh-Pacek, & Golinkoff, 2013) and may be similarly beneficial for enhancing play abilities. However, preschool teachers may not readily recognize when a child is struggling or know which strategies will facilitate more advanced pretend play. Education policy should support teacher training to provide knowledge about various components of pretend play and build confidence for scaffolding children’s play.

One example, The Tools of the Mind curriculum, includes a teacher scaffolding component. Children develop and follow play plans, focus on play that will facilitate literacy, math, and science skills, and are supported by their teachers. To begin Tools, teachers must register (and pay for) a regional workshop, which may be inaccessible to some programs due to location or cost. Moreover, it is not clear which piece is most helpful for children – is it the themes enacted, the development of play plans, or the focus on literacy, math, and science skills? By isolating the evidence-based strategy of teacher scaffolding, we can examine if this component alone can support child development and potentially improve the accessibility of this strategy to programs that may not have the resources to engage in Tools of the Mind.

A grant program that emphasizes teacher training on scaffolded play is necessary for ensuring preschoolers reach higher levels of pretend play, which will enhance school readiness skills and success in later years. Partnerships between funded early childhood programs and local researchers who can measure the outcomes of the program will facilitate engagement by researchers, policy makers, and program leaders, ensuring all perspectives are considered and incorporated in the intervention. Recipients of this grant who see positive outcomes for preschoolers, as demonstrated by evaluations conducted by researchers, can be exemplars for future interventions. This suggested approach to incorporating pretend play in early childhood programs would encourage evidence-based policy by a strategy that was effective in prior research, pilot a few programs to test this strategy, and potentially apply this strategy on a larger scale should the pilot program be effective.