skip to primary navigation skip to content

Zhen Rao


Research Associate

E-mail Address


  • PhD (University of Cambridge)
  • MPhil (University of Cambridge)

Membership of Professional Bodies/Associations

  • ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship (2019–2021)

Back to top


Zhen’s research interests lie in the interplay between play, parenting, mental health, and emotions. She is particularly interested in social play (e.g., parent-child play, peer play) and how it is related to parental and child emotional expression (e.g., display of positive emotions and expression of anger) and mental health (e.g., anxiety and depression). Zhen has examined play across a wide range of ages (from early to middle childhood) and social and cultural contexts (e.g., home, school, and playground settings, both in the UK and in China). Zhen completed her PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2019, for which she investigated social pretend play and emotional development in 7- to 10-year-old children. Between 2019 and 2021, Zhen held an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship. She works as a Research Associate at the Faculty. 

Academic Area/Links

Back to top

Research Topics

  • Parent-child play interaction
  • Pretend play
  • Emotional development
  • Parental and child mental health
  • Behaviour problems
  • Social play across childhood and cultures

Current Research Project(s)

  • Parental anxiety and depression and their associations with parent-child play interaction 
  • Children’s anger expression and pretend play with aggressive themes
  • Associations between pretend play and children's positive emotions

Back to top


  • Postgraduate
    • MPhil/MEd supervision: Psychology and Education (P&E)
  • Undergraduate
    • Lecturing (Education Tripos - Play, Creativities and Imagination)
    • Supervision (PBS3: Social and Developmental Psychology)

Back to top

Principal and Recent Publications

Rao, Z., Barker, B., O'Farrelly, C., & Ramchandani, P. (2021). Maternal Anxiety and Depression and their Associations with Mother-Child Pretend Play: A Longitudinal Observational Study. BMC Psychology, 9(1), 1-11.

Rao, Z., & Gibson, J. (2021).You Pretend, I Laugh: Associations between Dyadic Pretend Play and Children's Display of Positive Emotions. Front. Psychol. 12:669767.

Rao, Z., Fink, E., & Gibson, J. (2021). Dyadic Association Between Aggressive Pretend Play and Children’s Anger Expression. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 39(1), 153-168.

Rao, Z., Gibson, J., & Nicholl, W. (2020). Features of Social Play in 8-to 11-Year-Olds in China: Exploring Children’s Own Perspectives. Beijing International Review of Education, 2(2), 276-294.

Rao, Z., & Gibson, J. (2019). The Role of Pretend Play in Supporting Young Children’s Emotional Development. In D. Whitebread, V. Grau, K. Kumpulainen, M. McClelland D. Pino-Pasternak and Nancy Perry (Eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Developmental Psychology and Early Childhood Education (pp. 63–79). London: SAGE.

Rao, Z., & Gibson, J. (2019). Motivations for emotional expression and emotion regulation strategies in Chinese school-aged children. Motivation and Emotion, 43(3), 371-386.


Blog on pretend play and promoting positive emotions in children

Coverage of my research on maternal mental health and mother-child play 

Coverage of my research on aggressive pretend play and children's anger expression