Award Date


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational & Clinical Studies

First Committee Member

Jeffrey Gelfer

Second Committee Member

Michelle Tannock

Third Committee Member

Catherine Lyons

Fourth Committee Member

Thomas Pierce

Fifth Committee Member

Terance Miethe

Number of Pages



Play is considered a fundamental tool for early childhood education practices as it provides numerous developmental benefits for young children. However, not all play is viewed by children, parents, and early childhood educators the same, especially playful aggression. For example, rough-and-tumble play, risky play, superhero play, “bad guy” play, active pretend play, play fighting, big body play, war play, gun play, and physically active and imaginative play are types of playful aggression that benefits young children’s development; but are often viewed negatively by the adults who observe it. The contextual factors that influence the development of these conflicting perceptions—the motivation for the current study—have received little attention from the research community.

It is unclear how the context of playful aggression—and contextual factors associated with observing playful aggression—affect adults’ perceptions of this form of play behavior. Therefore, this study aims to clarify which contextual components associated with observed playful aggression influence perceptions of the behavior and to what degree. Results of the current study demonstrates a hierarchy of perceived playful aggression of 3- to 5-year-olds—based on the degree of perceived “playfulness” demonstrated in their actions—that is defined by the unique combination of factors that are believed to influence perception.

Using video vignettes imbedded in an online survey questionnaire, combined with conjunctive analysis of case configurations as the primary analytic approach, the current research answers the following research questions:

1. Are perceptions of playful aggression “situationally invariant” or do attitudes about playful aggression vary by specific combinations of contextual factors such as a child’s age, whether an adult is present supervising the play, and the presence/type of weapon children play with, which define the situational context of aggressive play?

2. Do the contextual factors (i.e., children’s age, supervision, weapon presence/type) that are believed to affect perceptions of aggressive play demonstrate “main effects” on perceptions or does the influence that factors have on perceptions vary across situational profiles?

3. Do situational profiles that define the context of playful aggression that is most likely to be viewed as “playful” differ significantly for parents versus non-parents and for teachers versus administrators?

A convenience sample of adults employed in 12 early childhood educational centers located in Clark County, Nevada, was recruited to participate (n=41). Participants were asked to view a total of 12 videos, each lasting 15 seconds. Within each video, three variables related to the context of the play behavior were manipulated: a) whether the age of the children at play in the scene were the same, b) whether the play was supervised, c) and whether/type a toy weapon was used during play. When these contextual factors were combined, they created a total of 36 unique videos (2 x 3 x 6=36).

Each respondent was asked to view a random series of 12 videos. After each video the dependent variable—perception—was measured. Specifically, a respondent was asked to rate the behavior observed in each video. Scores were recorded on a seven-point semantic differential scale that ranged from (0) “play” to (7) “violent”. Given the affects of certain demographic characteristics that influence perceptions of playful aggression, participants also provided demographic information about their gender, race/ethnicity, education status, parental status, and whether they were currently a teacher or part of their school’s administrative staff.

This study, believed to be the first of its kind, adds to the existing body of knowledge by advancing our understanding of the situational context of playful aggression. It is important for two specific reasons. First, it helps clarify why different people view aggressive play differently, by identifying specific combinations of contextual factors that influence perceptions of aggressive play behavior. Second, results from the current study provide insight into policy geared towards integrating the positive benefits of playful aggression on child development into the classroom, by defining the situational context of aggressive play that is viewed as most “playful.” Finally, future research should build on information produced from the current study to develop effective approaches to include playful aggression experiences in educational policy and practice.


Aggression; Aggressiveness in children; Early childhood education; Gun; Perception; Play; Play assessment (Child psychology); Rough and tumble; Sociodramatic; Superheroes; Toy guns


Child Psychology | Developmental Psychology | Education | Pre-Elementary, Early Childhood, Kindergarten Teacher Education

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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