Children ‘use make-believe aggression to handle irritable peers’ – study

Children in a playground (Peter Byrne/PA)
Children in a playground (Peter Byrne/PA) - (Copyright PA Archive)
9:39am, Tue 06 Oct 2020
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Children are more likely to introduce violent themes into their make-believe games when they are with bad-tempered playmates, research suggests.

The aggressive themes, such as imaginary fighting or killing, may be a way of testing out strategies for coping with irritable friends, the study’s authors have said.

It may also represent an attempt to stop playmates becoming angry by giving them a pretend situation in which to “let off steam”, or simply to keep them playing by appealing to their nature.

As part of the Cambridge University study, more than 100 children at a school in China were asked to play with toys in pairs.

Children whose play partners were considered bad-tempered by their peers were observed to be 45% more likely to introduce aggressive themes into their pretend play than those whose partners were reckoned to be better at controlling their temper.

A child’s own temperament did not predict the level of make-believe aggression.

A children’s playground (Rui Vieira/PA) - (Copyright PA Archive)

Instead, children often appeared to introduce these themes specifically in response to having an irritable playmate.

The paper’s authors say that, in certain cases, aggressive make-believe play can help children’s social and emotional development, but that further research is needed before they can provide definitive guidance for parents or practitioners.

Dr Zhen Rao, from the centre for research on play in education, development and learning (Pedal), at the faculty of education, University of Cambridge, said: “If children have a friend who is easily angered, and particularly if they haven’t coped well with that behaviour, it’s possible that they will look for ways to explore it through pretend play.

“This gives them a safe context in which to try out different ways of handling difficult situations next time they crop up in real life.”

The research was carried out with 104 children, aged seven to 10, at a school in Guangzhou in China, as part of a wider project that the team were undertaking in that region.

Participants were asked to organise themselves into pairs, many of them therefore picking friends, and were then filmed playing for 20 minutes.

The toys they were given were deliberately neutral, with no toy weapons, and the children could play however they wanted.

The researchers then coded the footage, earmarking instances of pretend play, aggressive themes, and non-aggressive negative themes.

The study distinguished between aggressive pretend play and its “non-aggressive, negative” variant: for example, pretend play that involves imagining someone who is sick or unhappy.

Separately, the researchers asked peers to rate the children’s tendency to become angry.

Each child in the study was rated by, on average, 10 others, who were asked to decide whether they were good at keeping their temper, easily angered, or “somewhere in between”.

On average, the children spent only about a fifth of their recorded session participating in pretend play, of which around 10% involved aggressive themes and 8% involved non-aggressive negative themes.

Pretend play was observed in all children.

More than half (53.5%) showed at least one instance of aggressive pretend play, and 43% of the children showed at least one instance of negative pretend play.

The researchers found that boys were 6.11 times likelier to engage in aggressive pretend play than girls.

“Our study highlights the importance of taking into account a social partner’s emotional expression when understanding aggressive pretend play,” said Dr Rao.

“Further research is clearly needed to help us better understand this in different social contexts.

“The possibility that children might be working out how to handle tricky situations through pretend play suggests that for some children, this could actually be a way of developing their social and emotional skills.”

The research is published in the British Journal Of Developmental Psychology.

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