Pellegrini, A. (1984). Identifying causal elements in thematic-fantasy play paradigm. American Educational Research Journal, 21(3): 691-701.1


This study examines the effect of adult-directed and peer-directed thematic play on both immediate and sustained recall. Kindergarten and first-grade students heard a story and participated in one of two thematic play groups (adult- or peer-directed), a discussion group, or a control group. Both peer- and adult-directed play were more effective for immediate recall than the other methods; however, only the youngest children modestly sustained recall. Peer-directed thematic fantasy play proved to be as effective as adult-directed play, indicating that children can aid in their own understanding through fantasy play without being directed by an adult.

Key Findings:

  • Adult- and peer-directed thematic-fantasy play were more effective for immediate story recall than other conditions; however, adult- and peer-directed thematic-fantasy play were only effective for kindergarten students with regards to sustained story recall on the criterion-referenced test (CRT).
  • Adult-directed thematic fantasy play was equally effective as peer-directed play.
  • Verbal interactions between peers, which were part of thematic-fantasy play, helped students construct narrative structures that led to better story recall.
  • It seemed that thematic-fantasy play also helped students develop conflict resolution skills since students had to resolve conflicts about who would play which character.

Significance of the Findings:

This study builds on past work that looks at the role of thematic-fantasy play in story understanding and recall. Since both student- and adult-directed groups were part of the study and did equally well, it appears that students can engage in thematic-fantasy play without being led by adults. Thus, peer-directed thematic-fantasy play can be used as an approach to increase story recall for young students.


The researcher worked with 192 kindergarten and first-grade students. Three different storybooks were read to the students. The researcher assigned students randomly to one of four conditions in which to participate after each reading: adult-directed thematic-fantasy play, peer-directed thematic-fantasy play, adult-facilitated discussion, or control. The first two storybook readings were used as training sessions. Students completed three different tests after the third reading. They answered a 10-item test on detail recall, orally retold the story to a researcher, and sequenced pictures of story scenes. A week later, students retook the test and orally retold the story to assess sustained story recall. Researchers audio recorded and scored the oral story retellings. They used analysis of variance to analyze differences in the scores.

Limitations of the Research:

The student population was primarily black and low income. Thus, it is not clear if the results are generalizable to all kindergarten students regardless of ethnic and socioeconomic background.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What skills and training should adults have to most effectively lead thematic-fantasy play for young children? How do different aspects of thematic-fantasy play lead to increased story comprehension and recall?

1The text of this summary is adapted from the Arts Education Partnership’s 2002 research compendium: Deasy, R. J. (Ed.). (2002). Critical links: Learning in the arts and student academic and social development. Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership.