Children being ‘actors’ is the true beginning of pretend play, researchers find
The Sector > Research > Children being ‘actors’ is the true beginning of pretend play, researchers find

Children being ‘actors’ is the true beginning of pretend play, researchers find

by Freya Lucas

January 13, 2023

Long before children use props in their imaginative play – such as imagining a stick is a sword, or a bowl is a hat – they are ‘actors’ who use funny faces, unnatural noises or pretending they are going to do something and then doing something else, even in infancy, researchers have found. 


The new study has explored the origins of pretend play and suggests that infants perform interactional patterns with elements of pretence a lot earlier than thought.


Led by the University of Portsmouth and Lund University, Sweden, the study has established connections between pretence and a child’s early on playful interactions, such as clowning and teasing.


Pretend play is often considered a developmental landmark, being linked to emotion regulation, language skills, cognitive reasoning, and problem-solving. It is widely accepted that a child begins participating in make-believe activities when they have developed the capacity to recognise they are doing it and, in most cases, studies focus on infants who are somewhat verbal.


Defined as being an activity with a symbolic character, in which a signifier (e.g. a banana) is used to represent the meaning of a signified (e.g. a telephone). But the paper, published in the Journal of Applied Psycholinguistics, says variations exist in its quality, emergence and developmental progress across different contexts and cultures.


Researchers argued that pretence should stop being defined as an end-product of cognitive development, and instead an interpersonal one. Its origins can then be moved to much earlier in infancy than was originally thought possible.


“There is observational evidence of a child as young as eight months old pretending to give an object to someone, then withdrawing it as soon as they reach out,” Valentina Fantasia, from the Department of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at Lund University explained.


“Most parents and caregivers have experienced these types of interactions, but still not much attention has been dedicated to investigating their broadest developmental impact or the continuity that exists with pretend play.”


“What these earlier and later forms of actions have in common most, is that they are spaces in which infants and children can construct and explore different kinds of realities with meaningful others.”


The study recommends further observation of early form pretence to see how pretend play can be encouraged from a younger age. If more attention is given to the role of early caregiver-infant interactions, from parents reading a book in a character’s voice to playing peek-a-boo, it allows a child to ‘act their part’ from day one of their lives.


Access the research in full here

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