Improving executive function development: fantasy-oriented pretend-play as a protective factor

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University of Alabama Libraries

Recent research suggests certain abilities (i.e., emotion regulation, appropriate physiological reactivity, executive functions) support the development of school readiness skills, especially among children in low-income environments. Although many preschool curricula have been developed to scaffold school readiness skills in at-risk preschoolers, these curricula are often very costly and require extensive training to implement. In order to improve upon the feasibility and sustainability of these programs, it is important to identify natural environmental experiences that are implicated in normative development. For instance, engaging in pretend-play, which typically involves cooperation, shared affect, and support among peers and adults, likely provides a positive context to scaffold development. The current study investigated how a propensity towards imagination and pretend-play (i.e., fantasy orientation; FO) may serve as a protective factor to minimize deficits in executive functions in a Head Start population (N = 343 children). Results revealed partial support for these hypotheses. Specifically, it appears that cognitive aspects of FO moderate the relationship between emotion regulation and executive function such that better cognitive performance was observed among children with poor emotion regulation skills and a high FO compared to peers who had poor emotion and a low FO. Similarly, behavioral aspects of FO appear to moderate the relationship between physiological reactivity and executive function. Among children who displayed low physiological reactivity, those with a higher FO demonstrated better executive function outcomes than peers who had a low FO. Implications for curriculum development and future directions are discussed.

Electronic Thesis or Dissertation
Developmental psychology, Cognitive psychology