A New Look at Playing Pretend

Playing “pretend” with Bruno-the-bear or Maggie-the-doll may be the highlight of a toddler’s day, but try to fool an innocent three-year-old into thinking that Maggie’s bath toy can also represent Bruno’s pillow, and you might just ruin it. At the very least, the toddler will not fall for it.

A recent study by Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom and graduate student Deena Skolnick Weisberg found that young children draw distinctions in their imaginary worlds.

The study was divided into two parts. In both, young children played imaginative games with adults who later questioned them about the roles of the various props used during play. Two toys, a doll named “Maggie” and a teddy bear named “Bruno,” were central to the experiments.

In the first part, fifty three and four-year olds were tested individually; each was asked to help Maggie take a bath using blocks available as props (to become soap, bath toys, etc.). An adult then interrupted the play and requested help in preparing Bruno’s bath. Once again, the children were encouraged to use blocks as objects and were given no restrictions as to which blocks could be used.

Then, to determine if objects from different worlds could be transferred, each toddler was then told to switch the activities in “Game 2”: Maggie was done with her bath and needed a nap, while Bruno had just woken up and needed a bath. Again, the children were told to utilize props and were given free choice among all the blocks. The underlying question was: would children pick the same block previously used as soap, for instance, for the new character?

Results revealed that the answer was generally no. A significant majority of children were reluctant to use Maggie’s soap for Bruno and instead chose an unused block from the central pile. Moreover, these results were consistent between the two variations.

Next, in this second part of the investigation, two conditions were set up: a “stopping condition” involving two separate imaginary worlds and a “continuing condition” involving a single world. In both, the children were initially told to identify blocks as either “snack foods” or “animals.” Then, an excuse was made to induce a short waiting period (for example, that the snack needed to be put in the oven).

In the “stopping condition,” the adult experimenter said he/she did not want to wait and wanted to play something else (this second activity then created the second, separate pretend world). In the “continuing condition,” the experimenter suggested doing something else while waiting (therefore not leaving the original world). In both cases, the child and adult then played another game involving either food or animals, depending on the initial category. Eventually, the child was asked to collect all the food or animals.

The authors predicted that the “continuing condition” objects would be considered still “live,” meaning that the children would likely include them in their final collection. In contrast, the researchers hypothesized that the “stopping condition” would create a scenario involving two distinct worlds, such that the children would not choose blocks from the first game in the end collection.

Results confirmed these predictions. Indeed, a significantly higher number of children counted the Game 1 objects in the “continuing condition” as compared to in the “stopping condition.”

Weisberg now hopes to “broaden the research and look at different kinds of fictional scenarios.” An understanding of children’s separation of counterfactual worlds may have applications for improving supervision in daycare and preschool.

Furthermore, these findings may also lend insight to our understanding of the adult planning process. When making decisions, adults evaluate the consequences of alternative ideas. This is a skill that requires distinctions among events – a skill first noticed in the company of Maggie-the-doll and Bruno-the-bear.