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DVD - Group Activities that Heal
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Section 20
Children’s Fantasy Play & Emotional Understanding

CEUs Question 20 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Play Therapy CEU Courses
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Children' s fantasy play and understanding of emotions are important processes in child development and child psychotherapy. Fantasy play is often used with children to both elicit emotions and help children develop a better understanding of emotions. Assessing children's emotional understanding provides important information about children's ability to cope with their own feelings in emotional situations and their success in interactions with others (Greenberg, Kusche, Cook, & Quamma, 1995; Shirk & Russell, 1996). Therefore, it is important to examine if affective and cognitive processes in fantasy play are related to emotional understanding.

Emotional Understanding
Emotional understanding is the process by which people make inferences about their own and others' feelings and behaviors that in turn influence their thoughts and actions (Nannis, 1988).

Children's understanding of emotions is important because it contributes to children's ability to redirect and control displays of emotion and emotional experiences, to accurately interpret and react to others' emotional displays, and to anticipate how decisions and situations will affect one's feelings (Harris, 1985; Thompson, 1989). Researchers summarized the literature on children's emotional knowledge (Greenberg et al., 1995; Nannis, 1988; Saarni & Harris, 1989), which suggested that by early elementary school age, children recognize that feelings are concrete and can be identified by external cues. At this age children may recognize that feelings are internal, but they may cite internal objects, such as the heart and brain, as responsible for emotions instead of more diffuse internal processes.

Three abilities that have been identified as important components of emotional understanding are (a) children's ability to recall and describe personal emotional experiences, (b) children' s ability to identify emotions in themselves, and (c) children's ability to identify emotions in other people (Greenberg et al., 1995; Saarni, 1997). This study was unique in examining the relations between these three abilities and children' s fantasy play.

Recalling and describing emotional situations is central to clinical work with children because therapy frequently addresses children's understanding and description of their experiences. To discuss their own emotional experiences, children need to interpret internal physiological and cognitive signals (Carroll & Steward, 1984). Trauma and abuse may be associated with difficulties in recall (Eth & Pynoos, 1985). Therefore, it is important to consider a child's awareness and understanding of the causes, situations, and behavioral responses associated with memories of emotional experiences.

Children's ability to identify emotions in themselves requires interpreting both external situational and bodily cues as well as information about internal experiences (Harris, Olthof, & Meerum Terwogt, 1981). Knowledge of one's own emotions may lead to more control of emotions as appropriate for situational demands and interpersonal relationships. For example, self-awareness of sadness may cause a child to seek out distractions or assistance to change his or her current experience.
Identifying others' emotions is also based on discerning situational and expressive cues. However, understanding others' emotions also requires making inferences about others' mental states and experiences when direct cues may be lacking (Saarni, 1997). This understanding may have implications for social relationships. Research suggests that some children incorrectly interpret their peers' intentions thereby leading to inappropriate aggressive behavior (Dodge, 1991). Children who are more skilled at understanding emotional situations are considered more likable by their peers (Denham, McKinley, Couchoud, & Holt, 1990). Accurate identification of others' emotions may enhance social relationships and empathic responsiveness (Strayer, 1995).

Fantasy Play and Emotional Understanding
Because play is a natural activity for children, it is likely that children's fantasy play reflects children's natural feeling states and children's ability to access, express, and integrate their emotions. Through pretend play, children can communicate or reenact real or imagined experiences that have emotional meaning for them (Fein, 1987; Russ, 1993). Children's play often includes themes that reflect their fundamental concerns: connectedness, physical well-being, empowerment, social regulation, and respect for or aggression toward material objects (Fein, 1989). Similarly, children who have experienced trauma may reenact the trauma themes repeatedly in their play (Eth & Pynoos, 1985).

Theoretical and empirical evidence suggest that there may be two reasons for a relation between children' s fantasy play and emotional understanding. First, using imagination in play may relate to the cognitive ability to take the perspective of other people. The ability to role play and take different perspectives in pretend play would be similar to imagining the others' emotional experience. Children' s understanding of other people' s mental states may depend on an imaginative understanding (Harris, 1989; Meerum Terwogt & Harris, 1993). A child's capacity for make-believe allows the child to consider multiple possible realities for himself or herself and other people (Harris, 1989; Meerum Terwogt & Harris, 1993). Individual differences in imagination and fantasy have been found to be significantly related to measures of affective and cognitive perspective taking (Astington & Jenkins, 1995; Gilbert, 1969; Slomkowski & Dunn, 1996; Taylor & Carlson, 1997; Youngblade & Dunn, 1995), empathy and role taking (Strayer & Roberts, 1989), and social competence (Connolly & Doyle, 1984). Also, facilitating children's pretend and fantasy play resulted in improvement on tests of imaginative, divergent thinking (Feitelson & Ross, 1973) and increased ability to empathize with other children (Saltz, Dixon, & Johnson, 1977).

Second, experiencing and expressing different emotions may be central to both fantasy play and emotional understanding. Common affective processes may include how an individual experiences and expresses different emotions (Russ, 1993). Experiences with one's own and others' emotions may make the child more familiar with features of typical emotional situations and expressions. Play reflects an opportunity to "conjure up feeling states" (Russ, 1993, p. 40). Children who are able to express emotions in their play may also be able to recognize and identify emotional cues in themselves and others.

Empirical literature does not suggest consistent sex differences in children's emotional understanding and fantasy play. A previous study using the Kusche Affective Interview-Revised (KAI-R; Kusche et al., 1988), a measure of emotional understanding, found that girls provided higher level responses than boys when asked for cues to recognize emotions in others (Cook, Greenberg, & Kusche, 1994). However, the literature about children' s understanding of emotions does not consistently report sex differences for children's emotional understanding abilities (Strayer, 1989; Thompson, 1989). In research assessing children's affect expression and fantasy play using the Affect in Play Scale (APS; Russ, 1993), there were no consistent sex differences in the pattern of correlations with criteria.

In summary, theoretical and empirical evidence suggest that similar cognitive and affective processes are involved in children's fantasy play and emotional understanding. The purpose of this study was to examine the relation between fantasy play and emotional understanding. It was hypothesized that children's fantasy play would relate to emotional understanding of self and others. Specifically, quality of fantasy and expression of affect in fantasy play were expected to be positively related to three dimensions of emotional understanding.

Although it has been suggested that fantasy play may aid children in understanding the relation between mental life and reality (Astington & Jenkins, 1995; Taylor, Cartwright, & Carlson, 1993), this study was unique in the examination of how the dimensions of fantasy play, both cognitive and affective, may be related to specific aspects of emotional understanding.
- Seja, Astrida, Russ, Sandra.; Children’s fantasy play and emotional understanding; Journal of Clinical Child Psychology; Jun 1999; Vol. 28, Issue 2.

Personal Reflection Exercise #6
The preceding section contained information about children’s fantasy play and emotional understanding. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 20
What are the two reasons for a relationship between children' s fantasy play and emotional understanding? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Test.

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