Researchers say pretend play should be studied

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A new study exploring the origins of pretend play suggests that infants perform interaction patterns with pretend play items much earlier than expected.

Pretend play is often considered a developmental milestone, being linked to emotion regulation, language skills, cognitive reasoning and problem solving. It is widely accepted that a child begins to participate in imaginary activities when they have developed the ability to recognize that they are doing so, and in most cases studies focus on infants who are somewhat verbal.

However, new search by the University of Portsmouth and the University of Lund, Sweden, has established links between pretending and a child’s early playful interactions, such as clowning around and teasing.

Iris Nomikou, Department of Psychology, University of Portsmouth, said, “We often see children using props that represent something else, like a stick as a sword or a bowl as a hat. But before becoming directors of imaginary worlds, they start small by being actors and making something unconventional.

“It can include pulling off funny facial expressions, making unnatural noises and even acting baby-like – like he’s going to do something when he’s not – to get the attention of your baby. ‘a relative, caregiver or friend.’

Pretend play is generally defined as an activity of a symbolic nature, in which a signifier (eg a banana) is used to represent the meaning of a signified (eg a telephone). But the article, published in the Journal of Applied Psycholinguisticssays that there are variations in its quality, emergence and developmental progress in different contexts and cultures.

The authors argue that simulation should cease to be defined as an end product of cognitive development, and instead as an interpersonal product. Its origins may then be moved much earlier into infancy than originally thought.

Valentina Fantasia, from the Department of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, Lund Universityadded: ‘There is observational evidence of a child as young as eight months pretending to give someone an object and then removing it as soon as they reach out their hand.

“Most parents and caregivers have experienced these types of interactions, but little attention has been devoted to studying their broader developmental impact or the continuity that exists with pretend play.

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

The study recommends further observation of early form simulations to see how pretend play can be encouraged from an early age. If more attention is paid to the role of early caregiver-infant interactions, from parents reading a book with a character’s voice to a game of hide-and-seek, it allows a child to “play the part” from the first day of his life.


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