When do children start to pretend?
It was originally thought that pretend play was dominant in preschool aged children. However, we now know that pretend play emerges during toddlerhood. Consider 15-month-old Tania, who picks up her soft tiger toy and says “Raargh!”, or 17-month-old Dong who stirs an empty bowl with a spoon and then, with a grin, puts the spoon into his mouth. Both toddlers are acting ‘as if’ – with Tania, it is ‘as if’ the toy tiger is real, and with Dong, it is ‘as if’ he is eating from the bowl. These early pretend behaviours usually reflect familiar experiences the child – Tania may be re-enacting a favourite story, and Dong is re-enacting his everyday mealtime event. No matter how familiar, these behaviours herald the beginning of pretend play, and show that toddlers are drawing on their memories and imaginations when they play.
An Australian study discovered evidence of pretend play in infants’ first year2. This study observed infants in three-month intervals between the ages of 8 and 17 months as they and their parents played with provided play materials. The researcher rated the infants’ observed level of pretend play from simple to complex.
Simple pretense, such as the examples given above, was clearly observed at the youngest age. By 17 months of age, toddlers were all participating in more complex sequences of pretend play, such as bathing and putting a doll to bed, mixing and cooking cakes, or imagining that a box was a bus and taking their teddies to the shops. Pretend play, in this study, was firmly established by 18 months of age.
Supporting toddlers’ pretend play.
As well as noting that pretend play was evident earlier than expected, the study made two further interesting observations. The first was the effect of the provided play materials on the play.
Each set of play materials included familiar items such as a spoon, various bowls and tubs, small blankets, dolls, soft toys, cars and small figurines. These items lend themselves to pretend play, firstly because parents and children can use the familiar items to ‘act out’ everyday experiences such as cooking, eating and drinking, and secondly, because the inclusion of additional items encouraged the use of the imagination to transform that item into a make-believe object.
The second observation was that the parents consistently showed a higher level of pretend play than their infants. As the infants’ play became more complex with age, the parents also increased the complexity of their play. By modelling more complex pretend play behaviours, the parents, albeit unconsciously, seemed to be teaching their infants how to pretend.
That adult’s play an important role in encouraging early pretense has been noted in other studies. In particular, parents have been noted to use exaggerated actions and emotional expressions and phrases such as “just pretend” and “not real” when engaging in pretend play with toddlers3. These playful behaviours appear to signal to the toddler that “this is play – it is not real”, and the toddlers are likely to play along.