The Great Pretender

Pretend play is one of the most interesting milestones in children’s cognitive development. What does it tell us?

Last week, my daughter, who is just shy of 2 years, started crawling on all fours on the floor, mewing loudly. “I’m a cat, mommy!” she told me brightly, and continued to pretend to drink milk from a nonexistent bowl. I was very excited, being the geek-developmental-researcher mom that I am, because that was fairly sophisticated pretend play for a two-year-old. Just think about the cognitive processing power that goes into that simple play-act: this young child, who is barely talking in full sentences, behaves as a certain animal, complete with stance, movement, and sound-effects, not to mention being able to imagine something that doesn’t exist (a bowl of milk) in order to complete her play. And, importantly for the point I will make later, not once did she actually think she was a cat, or lost her own identity.

How Low Can You Go?

Pretend play is one of the more fascinating milestones in children’s development. During the second year of life, children are increasingly capable of following pretence scenarios. For instance, in one study a researcher pretended to pour water into two cups, drink from one, and then asked the child to drink from the full cup. Even 16-month-old children chose the cup from which the experimenter did not drink more than what could be expected by chance. That is, the 16-month-olds were able to follow the pretence scenario, track the experimenter’s actions, and choose the correct cup. Pretty impressive for someone who can barely talk. The nicest thing about this experiment is that there was minimal language involved. In other words, it wasn’t just that the children who understand what the experimenter says do better.

What Can we Learn From Pretence?

I have been arguing for years (mostly at dinner parties, nothing published) that pretence is a great example of cognitive flexibility – the ability to consider two aspects of the same object or event. When a child pretends to be a cat, she keeps track both of her pretend identity and her real identity. Children never actually think they are cats. In fact, they never confuse the pretended scenario with the real state of things. Now, other researchers are starting to empirically look into that relationship. Stephanie Carlson organized a symposium in the conference I was at in April, and she talked about how linking imagination and executive functions sounds counterintuitive. And it is: executive function is about controlling your behaviour and thought. We think about imagination as the opposite – not controlling your thoughts, but letting them roam freely. However, in order to imagine that she is a cat, my daughter has to actually “control reality” in a way. When we imagine things, we have to “supress” reality, and that’s exactly where executive function comes into play.

Is there empirical evidence for this link? So far, according to Carlson, the links are circumstantial and correlational. However, there is a growing interest in the research community about this link, and therefore, more experimental evidence are coming into light. For instance, Jennifer Van Reet at Providence College found that children who completed a battery of conflict inhibitory control tasks did better on pretence tasks than children who did the same pretence tasks before they went on to complete the inhibitory control battery. All kids performed roughly the same on the inhibitory control tasks. It’s an interesting finding, and I can think of two explanations: either the inhibitory control battery made the children more aware of the conflict (making the whole executive functions “system” alert), or that it served as a kind of practice. Either way, it’s pretty neat.

Do your children pretend? Did you pretend when you were a child?

@2015 - Gal Podjarny