You are on page 1of 14

This article was downloaded by: [Chulalongkorn University]

On: 12 January 2015, At: 10:38

Publisher: Routledge
Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954
Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

International Journal of Early Years

Publication details, including instructions for authors and
subscription information:

Constructing Understandings
through Play in the Early Years
Sue Dockett
Faculty of Education , University of Western Sydney ,
Macarthur, Australia
Published online: 28 Jul 2006.

To cite this article: Sue Dockett (1998) Constructing Understandings through Play in
the Early Years, International Journal of Early Years Education, 6:1, 105-116, DOI:

To link to this article:


Taylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information
(the “Content”) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor
& Francis, our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties
whatsoever as to the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the
Content. Any opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions and
views of the authors, and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The
accuracy of the Content should not be relied upon and should be independently
verified with primary sources of information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable
for any losses, actions, claims, proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages,
and other liabilities whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly
in connection with, in relation to or arising out of the use of the Content.

This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes.
Any substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-
licensing, systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly
forbidden. Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at http://
Downloaded by [Chulalongkorn University] at 10:38 12 January 2015
International Journal of Early Years Education, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1998 105

Constructing Understandings through Play in the Early


La construction de comprehensions par le jeu chez les

enfants d'âge préscolaire

La constructión del entendimiento a través del juego en

Downloaded by [Chulalongkorn University] at 10:38 12 January 2015

los niños de edad preescolar

Faculty of Education, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur, Australia

ABSTRACT This article explores the role of play in one specific area of cognitive develop-
ment. It is suggested that children's engagement in shared pretend play promotes the
development of a representational theory of mind in at least two ways: through generating a
sense of cognitive conflict as children encounter views and ideas that contrast with their own
understandings (a Piagetian perspective) and through the construction of understandings that
come from interacting in a social context and engaging in the shared construction of
knowledge (a Vygotskian perspective). The compatibility of Piagetian and Vygotskian ap-
proaches is discussed.
The article reports an investigation of the shared pretense of four-year-old children. This
study involved two groups of children, one of which participated in a program aimed at
increasing the complexity of the shared pretense in which children engaged and one group
who did not participate in these experiences. From this study, the significance of complex
shared pretense and the relationship of this to children's developing understandings of mind
is discussed.

RESUME Cet article examine le role du jeu dans un domaine particulier du developpement
cognitif. On suggère que l'engagement des enfants dans le 'faire sembiant' partagé encourage
le développement d'une théorie de la représentation de l'esprit d'au moins deux façons: par
la production d'un sens de conflit cognitif lorsque les enfants rencontrent des opinions et des
idées qui contrastent avec leurs compréhensions (perspective selon Piaget) et par la construc-
tion de compréhensions venant de l'interaction dans un contexte social et l'engagement dans
la construction partagée de connaissances (perspective selon Vygotski). La compatibilité des
approches selon Piaget et Vygotski est examinée.
Cet article relate une enquête sur le 'faire sembiant' partagé d'enfants de quatre ans. Cette
étude concerne deux groupes d'enfants, dont l'un a participé à un programme dont l'objectif
était d'augmenter la complexité du 'faire sembiant' partagé des enfants et l'autre n'a pas

0966-9760/98/010105-12 ©1998 Carfax Publishing Ltd

106 S. Dockett

participé à ces experiences. Dans cette etude, la signification du 'faire sembiant' partagé
complexe et son rapport avec les comprehensions en développement des enfants est examinee.

RESUMEN Este artículo explora el papel del juego en un area específica del desarrollo
cognitivo. Se sugiere que la participation de los ninos en juegos simulados compartidos
promueve, de dos maneras, por lo menos, el desarrollo de una teoría figurativa de la mente:
al generar un sentido de conflicto cognitivo cuando los ninos encuentran opiniones e ideas que
contrastan con su propio entendimiento (una perspectiva de Piaget); y, al construir el
entendimiento que resulta de la interaction en un contexto social y de la participation en la
construction compartida del conocimiento (una perspectiva de Vyagotsky). Se discute la
compatibilidad de los enfoques de Piaget y Vyagotsky.
Este artículo presenta una investigation de la simulation compartida entre ninos de cuatro
años de edad. Este estudio incluyó dos grupos de ninos, uno de estos grupos participó en un
Downloaded by [Chulalongkorn University] at 10:38 12 January 2015

programa que pretendía aumentar la complejidad de la simulation compartida en la que los

ninos participaban, y el otro era el grupo de los ninos que no participaron en estas experiencias.
Se discute el significado de la simulation compartida compleja y la relation de ésta con el
desarrollo del entendimiento de la mente de los ninos.

The idea that there is a connection between some types of play and some aspects of cognitive
development is not new (Fenson, 1986; Athey, 1987; Pellegrini, 1991). Much of the discussion
as to why such a connection exists, and discussion about the nature and significance of this
connection, can be traced to the writings of Piaget and Vygotsky (Nicolopoulou, 1993). The
present paper reports an investigation that aimed to consider a proposed connection between
shared pretend play and children's developing theories of mind—that is, their understandings
of the mind and how it works.
What are young children doing as they engage in play? What information may be obtained
about their understandings of the mental world as they play? To consider these issues, it is useful
to explore the following play episode. In this and similar transcripts, it became clear that
children's shared pretend play—particularly play which was classified as complex—had a
significant influence on their understanding of their own mind and mental states, as well as those
of others. -•
The context is the main room of a preschool in south-western Sydney. The children have
been part of the same group attending a morning session for five days per week for six months.

The Fence
Blair and Malcolm (both aged four-and-a-half-years) are sitting on the carpet using the Lego
Farm set. They both have fence pieces and, starting at different ends of the mat, are constructing
the one fence.

Blair. I'm making a big farm.

Malcolm: Blair, I think that's the wrong way.
[Blair has fence pieces upside down]
I'll show ya, they s'posed to go on this.
[demonstrates the correct position]
Blair: No, I know how to do it.
Malcolm: Yeah, but you don't have to have 'em like that.
[points to Blair's fence]
Constructing Understandings through Play 107

Blair. Yes you do.

Malcolm: No, you have to have 'em like that.
[points to his part of the fence]
Blair. No you don't.
Malcolm: You do.
Blair: How do you know?
How do you know?
Malcolm: Because my Mummy telled me when I came here, when I just started.
Blair: Did she?
Malcolm: She did.
Blair: [continues constructing his fence with pieces upside down]
Malcolm: OK, you can do it like that, but you'll see it's the wrong way.
[turns head upside down to show that the fence is upside down]
Downloaded by [Chulalongkorn University] at 10:38 12 January 2015

Blair. Well, I still won't do it.

[both build in silence for a few minutes]
Malcolm: Can I help ya?
Blair: Yeah, gonna be a big one [fence]
Malcolm: It's all right.
You do it how you do it, and I will do it how I do it, OK?
Do you want it to be like that?
[Looks at the one fence that is half one way and half the other]
Blair: Yeah, an' we doing a lot, an' it's big!
Malcolm: Now, make it turn in now.
[fence is formed into a rectangle]
Blair: Ours is gonna have lottsa animals in there.
Malcolm: [looks at fence—where both sections meet, they don't match]
Can I straighten it please?
Blair: Yeah, OK. Wait a minute.
Malcolm: We haven't got any more fence. We need some more.
[as adds more fence, turns all pieces the same way]
Blair: Only one sheep can go in here, and two.
Gonna have lottsa animals.
(Dockett, 1995 pp. 5-6)

Not all play episodes observed and recorded reflected complex play. Some play was
transitory, with players being involved for very short periods in actions that did not co-ordinate
with those of other players. To be considered complex, pretend (or dramatic) play needs to
involve most (if not all) of the following elements:
• imitative role play;
• make-believe with objects;
• make-believe with actions and situations;
• persistence;
• interaction; and
• verbal communication.
(Smilansky, 1968)
An overview of each of these elements is included in the Appendix.
108 S. Dockett

Players involved in complex shared pretend play, such as Blair and Malcolm in the episode
described, demonstrate these elements throughout the play. In this example, the boys used
make-believe as they constructed the fence and created a farm; persisted at the task for over
ten minutes; interacted with each other throughout the experience and engaged in verbal
These last two elements—interaction and verbal communication—were a particular feature
of the play as the players sought to resolve a confrontation about the construction of the fence.
In order to resolve the issue, both players needed to consider the perspectives of the other and
to work out what might be an acceptable solution. In this instance, a range of negotiation
strategies was employed by Blair and Malcolm as they discussed the correct way to position
the Lego pieces to make the fence. They employed strategies such as gentle suggestion,
demonstration, referring to parental knowledge, looking at the fence upside down to stress that
the pieces were upside down, offers of assistance, acceptance of different views, and specific
Downloaded by [Chulalongkorn University] at 10:38 12 January 2015

requests. Resolution was finally reached through Malcolm's persistence.

Overview of the Investigation

As noted above, the study from which the transcript was taken aimed to investigate the
possible connections between children's shared pretend play and their developing theories of
mind. Such a connection has been proffered by a number of theory of mind researchers (for
example, Flavell, 1988), who have suggested that participation in shared pretense requires an
understanding that people have different perspectives, both perceptual and conceptual, and that
different people experience things in different ways.
The understanding that there are different ways of interpreting experiences is also an integral
part of a developing understanding of the mind and the functions of the mind (Perner, 1991).
It is a significant step in developing a representational theory of mind for children to realise
that their own mental representations are subjective interpretations of the world and that other
people, or even themselves at different times, will interpret and understand things in a different
way. It is also significant that these understandings form the basis of shared pretend play. This
type of play could not continue if there were not an awareness of different perspectives, or if
there was no desire to participate in shared experiences relating to that pretense.
The basis of the study underlying this paper is that the process of understanding represen-
tation is related to both areas and, following from this, that involvement in shared pretend play
influences the development of understandings about mental representations.

To investigate proposed connections between children's involvement in shared pretense and
their developing theories of mind, 33 children (average age of 50 months), who were attending
a NSW Department of School Education preschool for five sessions per week, were observed
over a ten week period (one preschool term). Observations of play were collected, as were data
from interviews with individual children performing a series of standard theory of mind tasks
and recordings of children's spontaneous speech throughout the day.
A quasi-experimental design was used to compare the nature and type of play, the
interaction in the theory of mind tasks and possible interactions between these areas for a
non-treatment and a treatment group. Pre-test measures of children's play and performance on
theory of mind tasks were compared with post-test measures of the same areas. Between the
pre- and post-tests, children in the treatment group participated in a series of play training
Constructing Understandings through Play 109

experiences (Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990), which aimed to facilitate and encourage more
complex shared pretend play.

Play Observations
Play and language observations continued throughout the ten-week period. From the data
collected during the first three weeks, six episodes of shared pretense play were randomly
selected for each child as pre-test measures of shared pretense play. Post-test measures were
derived in the same way, using data collected during the last three weeks of the study.

Theory of Mind Interviews

To establish pre- and post-test measures for theory of mind tasks, interviews were conducted
Downloaded by [Chulalongkorn University] at 10:38 12 January 2015

during weeks three (pre-test), seven (post-test) and ten (delayed post-test). Interviews were
conducted in the preschool and lasted for 10-15 minutes. Tasks of cognitive connections,
appearance-reality, false belief and representational change were included in each session. The
delayed post-test also included a series of appearance-reality transfer tasks.
Materials used for false belief and representational change tasks included variations of the
familiar container-unexpected contents task (e.g. Smarties packet containing buttons). Materi-
als used in the appearance-reality tasks included objects with a deceptive appearance (e.g. a
sponge painted to look like a rock; a candle painted to look like a cake) as well as objects that
have been reported by Woolley and Wellman (1990) to present more accessible appearance-re-
ality distinctions to young children. These objects included a range of toy items, pictures, some
pretend actions with a real object and pretend actions with an illusory object. A range of
transfer tasks was also included in the delayed post-test.

Play Training
Between pre- and post-tests, a strategy aimed at facilitating more complex shared pretend play
was implemented with one group. The play training group, but not the control group, was
involved in a series of experiences that were additional to the planned curriculum. A focus of
play (pizza shop) was selected from observations collected during the early phases of the study
and experiences aimed at building upon this focus and supporting play were implemented by
staff in the preschool.
The focus of the play—pizzas—was derived from the play observed in the initial weeks of
the study as an area that related to children's interests. It was a focus that combined the
predominant interests of boys (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) with a dominant theme of play
for girls (shops and shopping). The play training involved:
• a group visit to a nearby pizza restaurant, where the chef demonstrated how pizza was made;
• setting up an area of the preschool as a pizza restaurant, using appropriate props and
• children making, cooking, serving and eating their own pizzas at preschool;
• keeping a photographic record of the pizza making and referring to this as appropriate;
• intervention by the adults to direct and guide play. Intervention was based on the role
described by Christie (1982) as 'outside intervention', whereby the adult made suggestions
about the play when appropriate, but did not aim to enter the play as a player. The aim was
to guide play towards greater complexity—through comments or questions such as 'Is that
the phone ringing? Maybe someone wants to order a pizza?' rather than to model or become
actively involved in the play.
110 S. Dockett

The visit to the pizza shop occurred at the beginning of a three-week period. Over the
following weeks, staff added props and resources to the area set up as a pizza restaurant,
provided large blocks of time in which this area was available for free play and adopted the
role of outside intervention.
During this period, the control group participated in the planned curriculum.

Coding of Data
Data from theory of mind pre- and post-tests were analysed in terms of numbers of correct
Play observations were coded at two levels. Firstly, play episodes were coded using the Play
Observation Scale (Rubin, 1989) to determine instances of play and non-play. Secondly,
Downloaded by [Chulalongkorn University] at 10:38 12 January 2015

episodes of shared pretense (group dramatic) were analysed using the Smilansky Scale for
Evaluation of Dramatic and Sociodramatic Play (Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990). The second
coding procedure resulted in ratings for each child for each of the elements of shared pretense
play: imitative role play; make-believe in regard to objects; make-believe in regard to
situations; interaction; verbal communication; and persistence. Ratings for each play element
ranged from 0 (no evidence of the element) to 3 (extensive evidence of the element), based
on the criteria and instructions for coding described by Smilansky and Shefatya (1990).
Using the procedures described by Smilansky and Shefatya (1990), an average measure of
involvement in complex shared pretense was also calculated for each child.

The Groups
The experiences for both groups of children were the same throughout the period of the study,
with the only exception being the addition of the play training experience for one of the

Analysis of profiles indicated that the amount of group dramatic play was approximately the
same at the pre-test level, with 51% of the recorded behaviours of the control group and 49.1%
of the behaviour of the play training group coded as group dramatic play. There was no
significant difference between the two groups [F (15, 18) = 1.198, p<0.10]. After the play
training experience, not only the amount of shared pretense play [F (15, 18) =136.26,
p<0.02], but also the complexity of that play had increased for the play training group.
Using procedures described by Smilansky and Shefatya (1990), ratings for each play
element were combined, yielding an average rating for each element for each child. Multiple
regression analysis of pre- and post-test measures, with post-test performance as the dependent
variable, was used to generate regression residuals. These new variables represented any
change from pre- to post-test, and were used as dependent variables in further analysis. A 2
(group) X 2 (gender) MANOVA procedure identified increases for the play training group
in the elements of make-believe with objects [F (1, 30) = 4.797, p< 0.05], make-believe with
actions and situations [F(l, 30) = 5.753, p<0.05] and verbal communication [F(l, 30) =
10.782, p< 0.005]. The group that did not participate in the play training showed no
such increases in either the amount or the complexity of pretend play.
Constructing Understandings through Play 111

• Control
•D o Play training
c group

Pre-test Post-test
Testing occasion
FIG. 1. Average combined rating for play elements at pre- and post-test.
Downloaded by [Chulalongkorn University] at 10:38 12 January 2015

In addition to the ratings for each element, an overall rating was created by combining the
ratings for each element over the six episodes and dividing by six. Using regression analysis
procedures, a significant group effect was reported, with the average rating for the experimen-
tal group, but not the control group, increasing from pre- to post-test [F(l, 30) = 7.159,
p<0.05]. This is illustrated in Figure 1.
Significantly improved performance on the theory of mind tasks was also recorded for the
play training group in the immediate post-tests. The control group demonstrated no significant
change in performance on these tasks from pre- to post-tests. The improvements for the play
training group related to tasks of false belief at both the immediate [F(l, 31)= 12.368,
p<0.001] and delayed post-test [F(l, 31) = 32.466, p<0.0001]; appearance-reality tasks at
the immediate [F(l, 31) =12.88, p<0.001] and the delayed post-test [F(l, 31) =11.967,
p< 0.005]; transfer tasks [F(l, 31) = 20.056, p< 0.0001] and representative change tasks
(Fisher Exact test, p<0.05). The results for the false belief are illustrated in Figure 2. The
maximum possible score in Figure 1 was 4.
Improvements were noted for the play training group in tasks that required the recognition of
the deceptive appearance of objects, as indicated in Figure 3. Maximum possible scores for
each of the candle and sponge tasks was 2.

o Play training
• Control

Pre-test Post-test 1 ' Post-test 2

Data collection period
FIG. 2. Group means for false belief tasks.
112 S. Dockett
• Control-sponge
1.4 / oPlay
£ 1.2

| 1.0
/ s training-sponge
• Control-candle
• Play training-candle
§• 0.8
2 0.6
. •

Pre-test Post-test 1 Post-test 2
Data collection period
Downloaded by [Chulalongkorn University] at 10:38 12 January 2015

FIG. 3. Group means for sponge and candle tasks.

From this study, it became clear that not all shared pretend play is complex. Shared pretense
that is complex can be identified through the examination of the six elements described by
Smilansky and Shefatya (1990). Much of the play in which children engage does not include
all, or even most, of these elements. When it does, however, there is the potential for children
to develop and to demonstrate a number of understandings related to the developing theories
of mind.
The results of this study indicate that experience in complex shared pretense influences
performance on tasks that require a representational understanding of mind. After participating
in a play training experience, children were more likely to be able to distinguish appearance
from reality when objects had a deceptive appearance; were more able to consider that another
person may hold a false belief that contrasted to their own belief and more able to recall their
initial false belief and compare it to their current belief. In other words, children in the play
training group were more able to realise that the one object or event could be interpreted
differently by different people and that this resulted in different mental representations.
Analysis of the play interactions in this study identified two aspects of shared pretense
relevant to developing an understanding of mental representation, in addition to the complexity
of the play. These were the social interactions that occur within the play and the verbal
communication within that play.

Social Interactions
Being involved in a social situation offers the opportunity for the development of understand-
ing of mental representation in two ways. Firstly, through exposure to different perspectives
and the negotiations to resolve issues or conflicts that arise as a result of these differences,
children may be forced to evaluate and modify their own perspectives and representations of
reality, and to realise that their own views are not necessarily shared by others. This was
evident in the example of Blair and Malcolm building the fence. Secondly, shared pretense
provides the opportunity for the development and expression of shared understandings or
intersubjectivity, among players (Göncü, 1993).
Negotiating implies a number of understandings about the mind, such as what the other
player or players want, how they will probably react and what they will accept as a reasonable
argument. For example, there are instances in the transcript where Malcolm
Constructing Understandings through Play 113

realised that one strategy was not working—and Blair was not convinced—and another
strategy was needed. Adopting a successful strategy involves knowing your partner, and
knowing what they will accept or reject.
Sometimes negotiation occurs within the framework of the play, and at other times, players
step outside the play to issue guidance or directions (Fein, 1987). The contrast of different
perspectives about the same role, object, action or situation, and the negotiation required to
co-ordinate and co-operate within shared pretense are proposed as providing at least some of
the impetus for changes in children's developing theories of mind.
The second connection is that shared pretense provides the opportunity for the development
of shared perspectives and understandings—intersubjectivity—that may then be internalised by
individuals within that group. Within play, the interactions of others may provide guidance,
modelling, opportunities for imitation, opportunities to experiment with developing under-
standings, and strategies to take account of the differing views and perspectives of others. This
Downloaded by [Chulalongkorn University] at 10:38 12 January 2015

view draws upon the Vygotskian position that play generates a zone of proximal development,
and that through scaffolding, individuals within this group are able to achieve higher levels of
understanding than would be possible independently.
The two connections proposed between complex shared pretense and a representational
understanding of mind reflect both the Piagetian and Vygotskian positions described by Rogoff
(1990), where such understanding:

... from a Piagetian view is a product of the individual, perhaps sparked by having to account
for differences in perspectives with others, whereas cognitive development from a Vygotskian
point of view involves the individual's appropriation or internalisation of the social process as
it is carried out externally in joint problem-solving, (p. 150)

Verbal Communication
Several researchers have stressed the importance of verbal communication in pretense, with
Howes and Matheson (1992) arguing that 'to engage in complex social pretend play, children
have to co-ordinate their roles with their partner and be sufficiently verbally fluent, coherent
and articulate to co-ordinate the planning and maintenance of play' (p. 962). In other words,
complex shared pretense would not occur without strong verbal communication.
Two types of verbal communication have been described as relevant: metacommunications
and pretend communications. Metacommunications, defined by Farver (1992, p. 502) as
'verbal statements or actions that explain how messages about pretend play should be
interpreted', help to create shared meanings through the signal that the activity being engaged
in is play, rather than some other activity. Metacommunications serve several important
functions. On one level, they serve to separate, in an explicit manner, real from pretend. More
importantly, metacommunications are understood by the players on these two different levels.
Even when players step outside the play frame, or outside their adopted role, to issue a
direction or a rebuke, neither they nor the other players seem to experience confusion about
the reality or the pretense. On another level, metacommunications frame the play by setting
the context and offering guidance and direction as to the ongoing nature of the play. When
children add to, or respond to, their partner's ideas and actions in the play, they extend the
shared meanings already established.
The other form of communication that occurs within play episodes is described as pretend
communication, as it involves children in a communicative style which is appropriate to the
role adopted. The child who adopts the role of a parent or teacher and then imitates those
people in both the words and the tone used, is using pretend communication. The importance
114 S. Dockett

of this type of communication is that it shows children's ability to adopt the perspective of
others through role play.
Both pretend communication and metacommunication are used by Alex in the following
example. At first, he adopts communication appropriate to the role. When Sarah does not
interpret his actions as he expects, he moves outside the play frame and give directions about
the type of role he is adopting.

The Baby
Alex (4.2) and Sarah (4.0) are in the family corner.

Alex: I'm hungry, wah, wah, wah!

[sits at the table in the kitchen area, hands rubbing his eyes]
Downloaded by [Chulalongkorn University] at 10:38 12 January 2015

Sarah: Come on baby, let me feed you.

[picks up doll's bottle, moves towards Alex]
Alex: No, Sarah. I'm not a little tiny baby, I'm gonna be a big baby.
You're s'posed to feed me with a spoon.
(Dockett, 1994, p. 315)

In summary, there is a lot to be learnt about young children's theories of mind through their
play. Children's involvement in complex shared pretense is indicative of their ability to take
the perspectives of others, to adopt negotiation strategies and to contribute to the shared
meaning constructed in play episodes.

The Importance of Shared Pretense

Within a Piagetian framework, there has been a focus on the role of assimilation in
pretense—with pretense then reflecting development that has already occurred—and on the
accommodative function of pretense, where pretense provides some impetus for cognitive
change (Piaget, 1965). The view that play has this dual role in cognitive development, on the
one hand reflecting development that has already occurred, and on the other hand facilitating
development, is referred to by Johnson (1990) when he notes that:

... play has a constructive part or serves a generative role in cognitive development. [It] ... not
only reflects, or is a window on children's development but also contributes to it both by
consolidating or reinforcing recent learnings and conceptual acquisitions and by providing
opportunities for new masteries and novel insights. (p. 214)

Both of these roles are attributed to play within the context of children's developing theories
of mind. Complex shared pretense both reflects the understandings children have already
developed and it provides opportunities for the revision and refinement of these understandings
through the interaction with others who may hold different perspectives and understandings.
An alternative view of the significance of pretend play has been offered by Vygotsky
(1967), who described pretense as essentially a social experience incorporating sociocultural
elements. In this sense, play not only often involves others, but also 'the themes, stories or
roles that play episodes enact express children's understanding and appropriation of the
sociocultural materials of their society' (Nicolopoulou, 1993, p. 7). In relation to children's
developing theories of mind, as children play out episodes that reflect their social and cultural
context and as they develop a joint focus within their play, they start to internalise a range of
Constructing Understandings through Play 115

shared understandings constructed within the play context (Gaskins & Göncü, 1992). For
example, the interactions of Blair and Malcolm, as they focus jointly on building the fence,
reflect negotiation as a socially and culturally appropriate strategy to resolve the dilemma
facing them.
While the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky differ in emphasis, both theorists regarded
pretense as contributing to specific instances of the cognitive development of young children.
In relation to children's developing theories of mind, these two positions attribute different
roles to pretense, but none the less accept that pretense has the both the potential to reflect and
to promote understanding.
One important area of similarity in both theoretical stances is the recognition of the
importance of children's social environments. In investigating a proposed connection between
children's involvement in shared pretense and their developing theories of mind, it seems clear
that both the Piagetian emphasis on children interacting and co-operating with peers as a
Downloaded by [Chulalongkorn University] at 10:38 12 January 2015

means of becoming aware of different perspectives, adopting roles, and in creating and
resolving cognitive conflicts and the Vygotskian focus on the value of social interaction with
more skilled members of a social group and the role of play in the creation of shared meanings
that are socially constructed and then internalised by individuals, are relevant.

Young children's engagement in shared pretense provides some clues about their understand-
ing of mental representation. To engage in pretense, children need to have an awareness that
there is a difference between pretense and reality. Shared pretense requires even more complex
understandings in that children need to communicate their understanding with others.
When engaged in complex shared pretend play, children are likely to encounter views and
ideas that contrast with their own perspectives and to seek to resolve this conflict by
constructing new understandings. In addition, they may engage in the shared construction of
knowledge as a joint focus of play and communication about that focus develops. In this sense,
it is likely that both the Vygotskian focus on socially shared cognition and the shared
understandings that develop, as well as the Piagetian emphasis on the individual construction
of knowledge, are involved in children's developing understandings of the mind and mental

ATHEY, I. (1987. The relationship of play to cognitive, language and moral development, in: D. BERGEN (Ed.) Play
as a Medium for Learning and Development (Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann), pp. 81-102.
CHRISTIE, J.F. (1982) Sociodramatic play training. Young Children, 34(4), pp. 25-32.
DOCKETT, S. (1994) Pretend play and young children's developing theories of mind. Unpublished doctoral thesis,
University of Sydney.
DOCKETT, S. (1995) You make me alive! Developing understandings through play. Australian Early Childhood
Resource Book Series, 2(3).
FARVER, J. (1992) Communicating shared meanings in social pretend play. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 7,
pp. 501-516.
FEIN, G.G. (1987) Pretend play: creativity and consciousness, in: D. GORLITZ & J.F. WOHLWILL (Eds) Curiosity,
Imagination and Play, pp. 282-304 (Hillsdale, NJ, Erlbaum).
FENSON, L. (1986) The developmental progression of play, in: A.W. GOTTFREID & C.C. BROWN (Eds) Play
Interactions: The contribution of play materials and parental involvement to child development, pp. 53-66
(Lexington, MA, Lexington Book Company).
FLAVELL, J.H. (1988) The development of children's knowledge about the mind: From cognitive connections to mental
representations, in: J.W. ASTINGTON, P.L. HARRIS & D.R. OLSON (Eds) Developing Theories of Mind, pp.
244-270 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
GASKINS, S. & GÖNCÜ, A. (1992). Cultural variations in play: a challenge to Piaget and Vygotsky. The Quarterly
Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, 14(2), pp. 31-35.
116 S. Dockett

GÖNCÜ, A. (1993) Development of intersubjectivity in social pretend play. Human Development, 36, pp. 185-198.
HOWES, C. & MATHESON, C. (1992). Sequences in the development of competent play with peers: Social and social
pretend play. Developmental Psychology, 28, pp. 961-974.
JOHNSON, J. (1990) The role of play in cognitive development, in: E. KLUGMAN & S. SMILANSKY (Eds) Children's play
and Learning: Perspectives and policy implications pp. 213-234 (New York, Teachers College Press).
NICOLOPOULOU, A. (1993) Play, cognitive development and the social world: Piaget, Vvgotsky and beyond. Human
Development, 36, pp. 1-23.
PELLEGRINI, A.D. (1991) Applied Child Study: A developmental approach, 2nd edn (Hillsdale, Erlbaum).
PERNER, J. (1991) Understanding the Representational Mind (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press).
PIAGET, i. (1965) The Moral Judgement of the Child (New York, Free Press).
ROGOFF, B. (1990) Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive development in social context (New York, Oxford University
RUBIN K.H. (1989) The Play Observation Scale, revised edition. Available from the author, University of Waterloo,
SMILANSKY, S. (1968) The Effects of Sociodramatic Play on Disadvantaged Preschool Children (New York, Wiley &
SMILANSKY, S. & SHEFATYA, L. (1990) Facilitating Play (Gaithersburg, MD, Psychosocial Educational Publications).
Downloaded by [Chulalongkorn University] at 10:38 12 January 2015

VYGOTSKY, L.S. (1967) Play and its role in the mental development of the child. Soviet Psychology, 5, pp. 6-18.
WOOLLEY, J.W. & WELLMAN, H.M. (1990) Young children's understanding of realities, nonrealities and appearances.
Child Development 61, pp. 946-961.

Elements of dramatic and sociodramatic play (Smilanksy & Shefatya, 1990, pp. 238-239).

1. Imitative role-play
The child undertakes a make-believe role and expresses it by imitative action and/or verbalisation. For example, a
child may enact a character of a person (or animal) other than him/herself.

2. Make-believe with objects

Objects, movements or verbal declarations are substituted for real objects. Toys or objects being used in ways other
than intended (e.g. a cash register used as a typewriter) is also considered to be make-believe with objects.

3. Make-believe in regard to actions and situations

Verbal descriptions are substituted for actions and situations. For example, a child planning a picnic uses statements
to describe his/her actions. The focus here is on verbalisation.

4. Persistence
Persistence in the play episode (for some period of time). Persisting with a single or related role for a five minute
episode is coded as a high level of persistence.

5. Interaction
There are at least two players interacting within the context of a play episode. Interaction involves the directing or
words or actions to another, with the intention that the other child will respond.

6. Verbal communication
There is some verbal interaction related to the play episode. A high level of verbal interaction indicates that this is
an integral part of the play episode.
While the first four elements are present in solitary play, the last two are essential characteristics of sociodramatic
(shared pretend) play. Smilansky and Shefatya (1990) note that each of these elements is essential for the development
of complex play and that each of these elements may be interdependent. Further, they note that the 'richness of the
play, however, depends not only on the presence of all six elements, but also on the extent to which they are utilised
and elaborated' (1990, p. 239).