AERA 2001
Symposium Proposal

26 July 2000


Pretense as a Strategy for Learning

Dr. Anthony Pellegrini, University of Minnesota

Dr. Jane Perry, University of California at Berkeley
Dr. Stuart Reifel, University of Texas - Austin
Jennifer Somerindyke, University of South Carolina
Stephanie Owens, University of Northern Colorado

The central objective of this symposium is to illustrate the nature of pretend play as a strategy for learning. Goals of the symposium related to this overarching objective are the following: 1) to demonstrate the efficacy of pretense in acquiring and organizing knowledge about the world and the self; 2) to present two theoretical perspectives concerning the function of pretense as a learning strategy - the sociocultural and the evolutionary; and 3) to present evidence bolstering this view on pretense from sociodramatic physical activity play on the playground and symbolic play in the classroom.

The information presented in this symposium will contribute to the scientific and applied educational community. Specifically, the research has the potential to contribute to curriculum development and implementation by demonstrating the significant role of pretense as a learning strategy. The research further provides a guiding theoretical framework for the study of the cognitive structure and function of pretense.

The presentation will begin with papers concerning pretense in physical activity play. The first two papers utilize a sociocultural theoretical perspective on learning through pretense. The third paper, also based on pretense in physical activity play, is founded on theoretical work from evolutionary psychology. The final paper describes pretend play in the classroom and is focused on the acquisition of literacy skills through the use of symbolic play. This organization reflects a developmental continuum in pretense and provides a juxtaposition of two theoretical perspectives in the study pretense as a learning strategy.


The Role of Outdoor Pretense Play in Preschool Children’s
Interpretation and Negotiation of Affiliation in a Play Ecology
Jane Perry

This presentation looks anew at outdoor pretense play as one means preschool children use to interpret and negotiate complex ecological cues in the play yard. Preschool classroom ecologies communicate through three types of cues: (1) the suggestive features of the objects and materials available, (2) what children naturally enjoy doing with materials and equipment and (3) the shared history of play by children in an area (Aureli & Coecchia, 1996, Cook-Gumperz & Corsaro, 1977; De Vries, et al., 1991; Fein & Wiltz, 1998; King, 1992; Pellegrini, et al., 1995; Ramsey & Lasquade, 1996; Scales, 1987; Trawick-Smith, 1992). All three cues communicate a message to children regarding what is intended or expected in a particular area. The degree of interpretation required on the part of the child suggests that differing demands are made on the child's developing cognitive and socialization skills based on the degree of explicitness of the play area cues (Berk & Winsler, 1995; Fromberg, 1999; Hartup & Moore, 1990; Pellegrini, 1982; Scales, 1987; Trawick-Smith, 1998).

Interpreting the ecologies of the play yard involves significant learning challenges for children. Outdoor pretense play offers an integrative glue precisely because children are actively interpreting rules and expectations for each other. It is outside that the most vivid manifestations of outdoor pretense play with peers appear: in repetitive chasing, the bartering of friendship, the use of feigned threats and fear to integrate fragile interactions and the signaling and negotiating of "this is pretend" from "this is real" (Bateson, 1976; Corsaro, 1985; Corsaro & Schwarz, 1991; Perry, 1989; Pellegrini, 1995; Pellegrini & Smith, 1998; Smith & Connolly, 1980). Flexible to innovative interpretation, outdoor ecologies challenge children to independently make sense of play area cues.

Using the interactive episode as a measure to study pretense play with peers (Corsaro, 1985; Corsaro & Schwarz, 1991; Perry, 1990; Scales, 1987), an excerpt of an episode of cross-gender rough-and-tumble play is presented and analyzed to highlight the complexity of interpretation and negotiation involved in outdoor pretense play with peers. The analysis of the activity play includes a detailed description of how children signal and negotiate "this is pretend" from "this is real" and suggests that outdoor pretense play with peers functions to both coalesce and protect affiliations within the peer culture of the preschool classroom.

Repetitive, ritualized and often fast-paced outdoor pretense play with peers in the play yard is not frivolous. Outdoor pretense play with peers serves important integrating functions for those involved. The enactment of outdoor pretense play in the preschool peer group cements play interactions either when players are seeking out more experience and skills in group interaction or when the play theme is weak, threatened or unstable. For preschool children, at least, vigorous outdoor play with peers can serve an affiliative function as much as it can serve a dominance function, as postulated by Pellegrini & Smith (1998).  


Super Cat Girls: Girls Engagement in Rough and Tumble Play
Jennifer Somerindyke

Typically, girls have been excluded from the study of rough and tumble (R&T) play behaviors because it is believed that they do not enjoy nor benefit from physical play activities. Despite social constraints across various social domains, this research shows that girls do engage in rough and tumble play. Through a long-term, in-depth naturalistic investigation of playground interactions at one preschool, the role of peer interaction and teacher influence in supporting or constraining girls engagement in rough and tumble play was examined. Under specific examination was the creation of a mixed-gender R&T game, Super Cat Girls. This study suggests that R&T combined with sociodramatic play can provide cognitive, physical, and social benefits for both girls and boys as well as mixed-gender play opportunities. Cognitive complexity is demonstrated through the engagement in sociodramatic play and the development of elaborate rules. Sara Smilansky's 1968 research of disadvantaged children in Israeli is a landmark study regarding the cognitive functions of play. In her hierarchical categories of play, dramatic play (sociodramatic play) and games with rules provide the most opportunity for cognitive development. Smilansky claimed that sociodramatic play was important in the development of creativity, intellectual growth, and social skills. The extensive development of the game Super Cat Girls allowed the children, both boys and girls, to experiment with their levels of creativity (e.g., the girls invention of "poison" in the form of sand). The children's development of elaborate rules for Super Cat girl's provided opportunity for higher level cognitive functioning through R&T play.

Super Cat Girls also supported the players in developing social skills while engaged in R&T behaviors. The children learned how to engage in role reciprocity by taking turns being the chaser and the chasee. The girls were able to deal with positions of power by being the dominant figure in the game of Super Cat Girls.

Our findings illustrate how both boys and girls integrated R&T with sociodramatic play, creating opportunities for mixed-gender interaction and mutual cognitive and social benefits for both boys and girls. Pellegrini & Smith (1998) note that often researchers face conflicted coding situations because of a tendency to separate R&T from sociodramatic play. Our study supports their call to establish more complex coding schemes that account for the interaction of R&T and sociodramatic play.


The Pedagogy of Pretense
Stephanie Owens and Francis Steen

Many theorists pondering the existence and function of play among children and animals have concluded that the purpose of play is to train skills and to acquire or organize knowledge (Corsaro, 1985; Fagan, 1975; Bruner, 1972; Vygotsky, 1967; Piaget, 1962). Extending Bruner's (1972) notion that play offers an "optional pressure-free opportunity for combinatorial activity" (p. 38), we propose that play takes place in a distinct learning mode, in which behaviors are guided by target values that differ systematically from those of the mandatory executive mode. In this spirit, Fagan (1975) posits that play is a method of building a functional model of the world and of the self through experimentation with the world or one's own body to extract a predictive description from simulated examples. Play, we suggest, explores the child's possibility spaces of action, feeling, and thinking as they emerge during development, leading to the formation of conceptual and procedural strategies weighted for confidence and probability of success (Siegler, 1986).

The learning mode is designed to accomplish the primary task of the developing child: that of self-construction. It consists in those activities of the child that have as their primary objective the improvement of the child's motoric, perceptual, emotional, social and conceptual organization. Characteristic of behaviors in the learning mode is that they take place spontaneously, are experienced as intrinsically rewarding, and do not rely on the formation of a conscious intention to learn. To enter and sustain the learning mode, the child must feel safe and at leisure; under such circumstances, she will tend to adopt strategies for optimizing her utilization of environmental resources to achieve effective learning. The central cognitive innovation of the learning mode, in our view, is the poorly understood act of pretense (Nichols & Stich, 2000). It allows the child to make use of affordances in her environment to devise learning conditions that are safe, readily available, and developmentally appropriate.

Adopting a broader evolutionary framework, we make the case that natural selection has acted on the learning mode to structure the development of the child’s interaction with its environment in such a way as to make optimal use of its neurobiological, cognitive, and cultural resources. In the tradition of Rousseau (1762), we propose it may be useful to view the complex cognitive strategies employed by the developing child as an implicit form of pedagogy. It is a pedagogy that motivates the child through the conscious experience of a subjective phenomenology, structures the child's learning activities according to an implicit curriculum, and utilizes pretense as a way of creating a learning environment for the child. We do not endorse the view, however, that this model diminishes the significance of adult-child interactions. On the contrary, in the child's implicit curriculum, the adult represents a vital resource that can and in our observations regularly does get deeply involved in the child's learning through pretense.

In this talk, we use our field observations of chase play among preschoolers to provide a case study of the cognitive operations -- both internal and distributed -- involved in an elementary form of pretense. We argue that these operations form part of a learning mode designed by natural selection to train skills that in our ancestral environment were significant for survival. The model we develop is based on 116 observations that were recorded on the playground of a university child care center. Daily observations were made on weekdays, at various times of the day. Participants ranged in age from 2.5 to 5.5 years and were from two classes at the day care center. The development of this model marks the termination of the fourth cycle from a larger project using the grounded theory framework of Strauss and Glaser (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). We used event sampling to collect observational recordings, a method that entails the careful observation and description of chase games when they occur (Yarrow, 1960). Detailed descriptions of the chase game, such as facial expressions, vocalizations, and strategies of evasion, were included in the narratives. From the observations, we developed what Pellegrini & Bjorklund (1998) define an ethogram: a type of glossary containing behavioral descriptions functioning to guide observations and develop a common vocabulary in reference to particular features of a complex behavior. The ethogram also functioned as a guide to developing the coding scheme for data analysis.


The Play of Early Writing
Stuart Reifel and Phyllis Neves

This study describes the play associated with grapheme production at a writing center in a public school prekindergarten classroom. The study built on a number of theoretical roots, including: the theories of Vygotsky; research from the literacy acquisition field that indicates that drawing is a child's earliest form of writing; the work of Christie & Johnson (1987) and that of Reifel & Yeatman (1993) which specify how children can use symbolic processes during constructive play frames; and Dyson's (1989, 1997) research which demonstrated that older young children interweave writing, oral language, and symbolic play as they construct their stories within a classroom context. Taking some of the phenomena Rowe (1994) observed in her preschool study and then interpreted from a semiotic perspective, this study refracted those same phenomena through the semiotics of symbolic/constructive play an analyzing them using the lens of the Reifel & Yeatman (1993) classroom play model.

The research reported here was a naturalistic, qualitative investigation of a prekindergarten writing center, a traditional constructive play center. The site of the study was a public school prekindergarten classroom, and the participants were the children in the class who were eligible to attend because they are economically disadvantaged. Three types of data were collected: audio recordings of the children's spontaneous talk while they were participating in the writing center, handwritten observation notes, and the children's graphics. Children generated 337 graphemes during their interactions over a three week period. A two tiered coding system identified play pivots (or sources of meanings for pretense) and grapheme type . The interrater reliability of the coding was 95% for the pivots and 91% for graphemes.

This analysis describes the play associated with the most common graphemes: pictographs, ideographs, and letter writing. These productions are linked to common play pivots: peer interactions and graphics, players' own graphics, and ambiguous sources. These data account for nearly half of the instances recorded. The results indicate that the difference between a pictograph and an ideograph rested on the oral language a child used to encode the meaning of a graphic. Pictographs' most common pivot was peer social interaction and other peer graphics, while the ideograph's most numerous pivot was one's own graphics. Some children drew or scribbled a graphic and then assigned a meaning to create graphemes. Other more sophisticated children would first state what they intended to represent and then produce a grapheme. The oral language reflected the language often heard at traditional constructive play centers. Grapheme results also demonstrated that children tune their graphics to suit their play needs and in response to the implicit graphic themes that developed in the social context. The intrinsic playful nature of the graphemes was reflected in how fluid the meaning of the graphics were. The process of creation took priority over the final product confirming the essence of play involved. These transformations were embedded in the social context of the writing center.

Our findings also provide a slight contrast to the position taken by a number of scholars who argue for a play basis for early literacy (e.g., Christie, 1994; Christie, Enz, & Vukelich, 1997; Hall, 1991; Levy, Schaefer, & Phelps, 1986; Morrow, 1989, 1990; Schrader, 1991). Planning play activities, whether with specific dramatic play materials or other forms of support for play, may indeed enhance early literacy (Frost, et al, 2000). But as our findings show, literacy materials in the classroom provide a context for play, and the play that children create with literacy materials provokes increasing literacy. Children use their own play with paper and markers as pivots for literacy acquisition by making literacy (at a level that is meaningful to them) into play.



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