The relationship of pretend play, parent-child mutually response orientation (MRO), and emotional availability

Which parents engage in pretend play?

What is pretend play?

Pretend play, also often referred to as pretense, symbolic play, and fantastical play (Lillard & Taggart, 2019), is when individuals engaging in play pretend that individuals or objects serve something other than their real purpose. In pretend play scenarios, hair brushes can become microphones, dolls can be babies, and bananas can be telephones. Although pretend play is most often thought of in terms of child’s play, adults use it, too: just refer back to your last Halloween costume, or the last time you attended a murder mystery dinner party.

Pretend play is everywhere, and ever since I started learning about pretend play, I’ve wanted to answer the question of why people even use it? What purpose does it serve? Is it really “just for fun”, or does pretend play have any significance to social and cognitive development?

These are questions that other developmental researchers have asked, too. The research reveals a variety of information: some have found that play, and engaging in play with other people, is important to the development of a variety of skills, including prosocial skills (Scott & Cogburn, 2020) and self-regulation skills (Brophy-Herb et al., 2018). A lack of engagement in pretend play is also sometimes thought of as a risk factor for abnormal development (Campbell et al., 2016).

Other literature suggests that use of pretend play also varies based on geographic location, culture, and even the school system’s that children are a part of (Lillard & Taggart, 2019).  For example, the Montessori school system does not advocate for pretend play, based on research that has found that children prefer real-life objects over pretend ones (Taggart et al., 2018).

In sum, there is a lot that research still has to learn about pretend play. Although pretend play is often examined through the angle of which kids pretend play, it is harder to find research on which parents engage in pretend play. Past research has shown that mothers view pretend play more positively than fathers, but research has yet to demonstrate a relationship between the use of pretend play and parental social and emotional factors.

The current project:

Since past work has shown a positive relationship between pretend play and the development of children’s prosocial skills, I designed a project that asks whether there is also a relationship between parents’ use of pretend play with their infants and young children, and parents’ emotional well-being. To investigate this relationship, I’m examining the relationship between parents’ use of pretend play and Mutually Responsive Orientation (MRO).

This project also examines MRO and use of pretend play in a special population: mother-infant dyads living in homeless shelters. Thus, the findings of this project will allow developmental psychological science to better understand infants’ social and cognitive development while living in a shelter environment, and the relationship of parental well-being on how parents interact with their young children.

This project was built in collaboration with Maria Abdul-Masih, a fellow Master’s student in the Experimental Psychology program at Villanova University. Over summer 2020, Maria and I both learned about MRO and how to evaluate MRO during free play interactions. Maria decided that to use MRO as part of her Master’s Thesis project, while I built this independent study. Here is some more information on MRO, along with some information about Maria’s Master’s project which will be launching during Fall of 2020!

“My thesis examines an aspect of a positive parent-child relationship called mutually responsive orientation (MRO) and the subsequent impact that may have on an infant’s language and motor development. Here, MRO is characterized as a close, cooperative, and positive affect with a shared responsiveness between the parent and child. The assumption is that a positive parent child relationship marked by high scores of mutually responsiveness orientation can serve as a protective factor against many of the negative effects of homelessness and poverty on infant development.

 I will be examining this relationship in both a homeless and demographically similar, but housed, population to determine if any potential findings are more prevalent, or are manifested differently, in different populations with varying levels of risk”

Maria Abdul-Masih, Villanova University

My independent study project asks two main questions:

  1. Do parents who live in a shelter environment use pretend play with their children?
  2. Is there a relationship between parents’ use of pretend play and the quality of their relationship with their children?

Project Goals

            One of my career goals is to help advance current knowledge about how parents and young children work together in the child’s development, and how children can persist, thrive and grow in a variety of different environments. Through this independent study, I have the opportunity to learn about how this occurs in the shelter population, and how learning can occur during informal learning interactions, such as play.

Questions, comments or constructive feedback?

            This project is a work-in-progress, so this page will be updated as I build my project. I’m always happy to hear others’ thoughts on my work. Feel free to leave me a comment here or reach out at


Brophy-Herb, H. E., Bocknek, E. L., Choi, H. H., Senehi, N., & Douglas, S. N. (2018). Terrific Twos: Promoting Toddlers’ Competencies in the Context of Important Relationships. In A. S. Morris & A. C. Williamson (Eds.), Building Early Social and Emotional Relationships with Infants and Toddlers: Integrating Research and Practice (pp. 157–181). Springer International Publishing.

Campbell, S. B., Leezenbaum, N. B., Mahoney, A. S., Moore, E. L., & Brownell, C. A. (2016). Pretend Play and Social Engagement in Toddlers at High and Low Genetic Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of autism and developmental disorders46(7), 2305–2316.

Lillard, A.S. and Taggart, J. (2019), Pretend Play and Fantasy: What if Montessori Was Right?. Child Dev Perspect, 13: 85-90. doi:10.1111/cdep.12314

Scott H.K., Cogburn M. Peer Play. [Updated 2020 Jul 10]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from:

Taggart, J., Fukuda, E., & Lillard, A. S. (in press). Children’s preference for real activities: Even stronger in the Montessori children’s house. Journal of Montessori Research.

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