For many years, researchers have been interested in the implications of pretend play in child development; and whether imagination influences how well children evolve in later life. Presently, pretend play is claimed to contribute exceedingly to a child’s social and academic wellbeing, with increased emphasis imposed upon pretend play and its relation to cognitive development. From studies supporting clear links between pretend play and cognitive competence; researchers have proposed numerous theories that have contributed to a better understanding of whether pretend play may be implicated in child development. Accordingly, this essay will argue that pretend play is related to several components of cognitive development; while also proposing that a range of variations across cultures in the types, structures and frequencies of pretend play may exist, with such variations influencing a child’s development. Utilizing evidence from a study by Joseph (1998), the relationship between mental representation (theory of mind) and pretence will be reiterated; with additional evidence by Kraft and Beck (1998), Wyver and Spence (1999) and Curran (1999) used to further emphasize that other cognitive strategies such as self-regulation, narrative recall, problem solving and rule understanding are linked to pretend play. Haight, Wang, Fung, Williams & Mintz’s (1999) study will evidently support the idea that several cross-cultural differences exist in the pretend play of children.
Fantasy play or pretend play is defined as “simple imitative actions done in a non-functional context” (Smith, 2010), involving certain actions, use of objects, verbalizations or meanings. The first phase of pretend play or decent-ration is said to surface at the age of one, when young children begin to use an actor, object or action to symbolize reality (Sigelman & Rider, 2009). By the age of two, children begin to join in pretence; initiating imaginary actions, playing with imaginary objects or imitating their parents; a stage known as de-contextualization. Pretend play increases in frequency and sophistication at around two to five years of age, when children incorporate their ability for pretence and their increase in social play to form social pretend play, or play which allows them to interact with peers or caregivers. Later, children show the ability to integrate pretend acts together in order to create a narrative. It is this type of play in particular that requires a high “deal of social competence, including the theory of mind or people reading skills” (Sigelman & Rider, 2009); two theories proposed by some researchers and discussed to some extent in this essay.
Engaging in pretend play allows children to construct and develop their theory of mind, hereby understand other people’s perspectives, and overcome egocentrism. This relationship between pretend play and the development of mental representations or Theory of Mind (TOM) was first introduced by Leslie; when it was suggested that children have the “capacity for metarepresentation” (Leslie, 1987) or multiple mental representations and that pretence aids a child’s “ability to understand mental states” (Leslie, 1987) of self and of others. Recent laboratory studies of theory of mind indicate “younger children often show understanding of others’ thinking and beliefs in their naturally occurring play” (Bergen, 2002). Joseph (1998) conducted a series of experiments of 3 and 4 year old children and their understanding of pretend behaviors through their ability to distinguish between an involuntary behavior and the same behavior acted through a pretend action. It was concluded that children aged 4 were able to “discriminate the intentionality of the pretend behaviour” (Bergen, 2002), and although relatively low, evidence was also found 3 year olds showed an “emerging understanding” (Joseph, 1998). These findings oppose prior suggestions that children under the age of 5 do not evaluate intent from action-outcomes and do not understand the role of intention in pretend. Focus was also emphasized on understanding of pretend as a mental state and whether this may result in a child’s “appreciation of pretend as mental representation” (Joseph, 1998). While 5 year olds were able to associate the knowledge condition of pretense well, 4 year olds showed little understanding. However, Joseph suggests that “4 year olds were failing the task not because they saw pretend as a strictly behavioural phenomenon because they were associating pretense with a mental state of ignorance” (Joseph, 1998). It is important to point out that the relative low performance of 4 year olds in tasks evaluating their understanding of pretend, could be an indication of the difficulty, but not the absence in a child’s “reasoning formally about the logical relations between intention, knowledge and pretend” (Joseph, 1998); proposing an underestimation of a child’s ability to recognize mental states in previous studies conducted. Importantly, however the study does point out that throughout the experiment children were aware of the characters’ states of pretending, hereby eliminating them of creating their own determination of pretend; and a possible limitation of this study. Overall, however this study shows that “children understand the mental and subjective features of pretence by age of 3 or 4 years” (Joseph, 1998) and are able to “reason correctly about counterfactual mental representations in the context of pretend play before they are able to do so in the context of belief” (Joseph, 1998), hereby supporting the relationship that pretend play contributes to the development of the theory of mind and therefore to cognitive development.
Following in the footsteps of Lev Vygotsky, who proposed the young infants use speech as a way of regulating their behavior, it has also been suggested that pretend play aids a child’s higher cognitive functions, including self- regulation and narrative recall. Expanding on this theory of the use of speech to regulate behavior, mainly through internal thought; Krafft and Beck (1998) conducted an experiment in order to compare the use of private speech in children of preschool age attending play based programs. It was concluded that speech did occur predominantly during the program; specifically during pretend play. They suggested that for preschool children “make-believe play serves as a vital context for the development of self-regulation” (Krafft and Beck, 1998). Furthermore, the study proposed that pretence within a social setting, which allows children to “determine task goals and carry them out” (Bergen, 2002); gives children an opportunity to practice and use self-regulating speech compared to play environments which are guided by prior goals or adult direction. Similarly, in a study conducted to examine cognitive change and pretend play, Kim (1999) tested 4 and 5 year old children on their ability to understand narrative structures; by way of reenactment of stories to condition using storytelling. It was found that “children in the pretend play condition use more elaborative narratives and had higher levels of narrative structures” (Kim, 1999). Additionally, children showed relatively higher rates of narrative recall in the pretend enactment and even at a later time when asked to retell the story. This strong evidence between self-regulation and narrative recall and pretend play suggests a clear link that pretend play does enhance cognitive development; as it was proven that speech was highly correlated with pretend play and that children who engage in pretend play create more complex narrative stories and prove to have a higher rate of narrative recall even at a later stage.
Similarly, additional studies have been conducted to further elaborate the effect of play, specifically socio-dramatic pretend play on problem solving and rule understanding. In order to detect this relationship, Wyver and Spence (1999) compared two types of problem solving to numerous categories of play. It was concluded that “there seems to be a reciprocal, rather than unidirectional relationship between problem solving and pretend play, with co-operative social play having a more general influence on divergent problem solving and thematic play having a more specific influence on semantic problem solving” (Bergen, 2002). Similarly, Curran (1999) conducted an observational study of 3- 5 year old children engaging in social pretence. It was discovered that children could use explicit rules to engage in fair pretend play; while also suggesting that while children construct implicit rules, these rules were harder for them to act out. Curran (1999) found that while play stopped if rules were broken when explicit rules were used; the children stopped playing altogether. Interestingly enough, under another condition, children gradually learned the rules if they were foreign to them, while the more experienced children also aided those who were inexperienced in order to keep the play ongoing. Therefore it can be suggested “the development of implicit rules, in particular, requires both divergent thinking and comprehension of rules structure” (Bergen, 2002), two skills important for later school success. While not extensive, this evidence does point to both definitive and precise ways in which pretence play may aid higher-level aspects of cognition, allowing a child who engage in pretence to develop rule understanding and higher levels of problem solving skills; two clear indications of cognitive development.
Pretend play has been studied in several cultures, with aspects of children’s play and cultural differences being the focus; while also emphasizing the assumption that pretend play and development of children is not universally distributed. Much of this research suggests that, although play is often regarded as universal, many researchers propose play to be “a culturally mediated activity that may take different forms in different groups” (Haight, Wang, Fung, Williams & Mintz, 1999). In fact it has been proposed that the physical and social characteristics of environments; such as setting, props, time, individuals around the child and the beliefs of pretend play by adult figures influence development. Using longitudinal data of Irish American families in the United States and Chinese families in Taiwan, Haight et al. (1999) “proposed universal, culturally variable, and development dimensions of young children’s pretend play”(Haight et al., 1999), arguing several universal dimensions may exist, but that numerous differences are also evident . It was pinpointed that both Chinese and Irish children used objects in their pretend play, much in conjunction to the theory that “for toddlers, objects may facilitate the transition from the literal to non-literal world” (Haight et al., 1999), suggesting that for the child to imagine something the child must first define the action. The study also proposed that the act of pretend play in children is fundamentally a social activity as it was found that in other cultural communities, pretend play “was primarily a social activity embedded within interactions with family members and friends” (Haight et al., 1999). Contrastingly, the study proposed that interpersonal context of pretend play varied amongst the two groups; with the Chinese children pretending more with their caregivers, while the Irish American children were found to pretend considerably more with other children. Variations in the amount of social play is said to exist; as compared to Irish American children, a greater amount of pretend play by the Chinese children was social. However, Irish American children “frequently engaged in multiparty pretending in groups of three or more players, often including slightly older children” (Haight et al., 1999). Additionally, conduction of caregiver-child play, function of caregiver initiations and centrality of themes vary significantly across cultures. Haight et al., (1999) found that caregiver pretend play in Irish American families was conducted by children, while the opposite applied to the other group. The study also suggests that Chinese “caregivers’ initiations more often functioned as way to practice proper conduct” (Haight et al., 1999) and points out that toys around Western children appeared to be toys from children’s movies, suggesting that greater emphasis is placed on fantasy themes. Finally, the study proposed that centrality of objects, particularly toys varied significantly; suggesting “Irish American caregivers purchased many objects for children’s pretending, and the majority of children’s pretend play time revolved around toy miniatures” (Haight et al., 1999). Chinese children did not exhibit any play with objects, and seemed to rely on shared knowledge of social routines to guide their joint play. Much of the current research on pretend play does not account for variations of culture and do not take into account how such variations play a part over life course development. It is possible that in order to construct a valid theory, research should focus on the relationship between “a set of complex ecological and ideological factors” and their effect on pretend play (Haight et al., 1999) in multiple cultures or communities, an aspect not focused on in this study. It is clear that universal and variable dimensions of pretend play in certain communities do exist. It can be concluded that such variations may have the ability to create specific and unique development pathways, possibly influencing a child’s various aspects of social, emotional and cognitive development, such as theory of mind and higher cognitive strategies, such as rule understanding or later problem solving skills.
There has been a growing body of evidence supporting the relationships between cognitive competence and pretend play, as well as the concept of pretend play and its variations across cultures. Pretend play has been positively linked to a child’s ability to develop a theory of mind, self-regulation, narrative recall, problem solving and rule understanding. Additionally, variations of pretend play across cultures have been revealed, with a possibility for variable dimensions creating distinctive pathways in play and development itself. It can be suggested, that while current research, based on small scale studies seems insignificant at present, it is fundamentally important for society to continue implementation of pretend experiences in young children; while also implementing further research on the relationship of play and cognition during childhood; as it can been seen from the evidence above that this stage of life has proven to be important and crucial in overall development.