Monday, August 5, 2013

Pretending is More Than Just Child’s Play

There’s a common theme to a great majority of popular kids’ toys: Pretending. Whether it’s a baby doll, a tea party, a toy fire engine, or a make-believe cell phone, the goal is pretending. In fact, what researchers call “fantasy play” is so common among the 1- to 6-year-old crowd that most adults just take it for granted without appreciating what an impressive developmental milestone it represents.

What’s the big deal? If you think about it, feeding pretend milk to a pretend baby requires a child to insert an extra mental step in comparison to an equivalent real situation where she is drinking milk herself or tipping her bottle up for Mom to have a sip. In the case of the baby doll she is also keeping in mind that the baby doll represents or symbolizes a real baby and the pretend milk represents or symbolizes real milk. How do we know she’s pretending? She’s clearly not surprised or upset when no milk comes out and the “baby” simply continues to lie there!

This same kind of mental gymnastics—which researchers refer to as the ability to use and manipulate mental symbols—is involved when children pretend to cook, have a tea party, crash toy cars, or fly toy planes. And development of this skill doesn’t stop here. As toddlers turn into preschoolers, their pretend play not only gets more elaborate but also gets more “abstract.” No longer is it necessary to play with something that closely resembles the real object (as a doll does a baby or a toy car does a real car); the preschooler now has the mental flexibility to pretend that a soft pillow is a baby that can be rocked or a block is a car that can go “vroom vroom.” In fact, development of the ability to pretend (or imagine) continues to get even more abstract until no physical object is needed at all—the arms can rock a totally imaginary doll!

So, the next time your child begins some kind of pretend scenario, appreciate it for what it is: a sign that the brain in that adorable little head is evolving in a wonderful direction, that is, toward increasingly sophisticated imagination—which, after all, is an important foundation of the valuable talent we call creativity.

Happy Signing (and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook)!


Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Co-Founder, the Baby Signs® Program
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis
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