Pretending – It’s Harder than it Looks!

This month’s blog is all about pretending. Pretending is a pretty complicated thing to do. When you are pretending, you are doing something that is not exactly true or real, but in your imagination it is. This means kids need to keep track of two things at the same time – reality, and the imaginary situation. Research shows this can be hard, and kids need time to understand different types of pretending.

There has been a lot of research on one type of pretending called object substitution. To do this type of pretending, kids pretend that one object, say, a banana, is another object, such as a telephone. This seems pretty straight-forward, but for young children, this can be pretty hard. In a study by Jackowitz and Watson, toddlers were asked to copy pretend actions. Most (but not all) 16 months olds would copy talking into a real or toy telephone, but most of them wouldn’t copy talking into something else, like a banana. Twenty-three-month-olds faired better. They would copy talking into something that had a similar shape to a phone, i.e., a banana, but if it got more abstract, most of them were lost too. Try to get them to talk into a wooden block or a car, and most of them gave up. The shape was too different, so it was hard for them to imagine that a block or car could be an imaginary phone. In fact, another study by Elder and Pedersen found that most children couldn’t pretend that one object was something completely different until 3 years – and even then, not all children complied.

The above research points out another type of pretending that might be easier for younger children to grasp. It’s called symbolic pretending and involves pretending with the object that you would normally use anyway. For instance, drinking out of an empty cup is pretending because children are not really drinking. Research suggests that children may understand this type of pretending as young as 15-18 months. For instance, in a more recent study by Francesca Bosco and colleagues, toddlers watched an experimenter “pour” water from a jug into one of two cups. Children were then asked to drink. The trick was for children to choose the right cup. If children could follow the imaginary sequence of events, they should go with the cup that had the imaginary water in it. If children didn’t know what was going on, they might just pick up a cup at random. Most (but not all) of the toddlers picked up the right cup, ignoring the “empty cup”, showing they could follow the imaginary sequence. Another type of pretending that has been much less studied is pretending without objects. This could include fake crying, pretending not to hear or see something, or pretending to sneeze or snore. Nakayama recently ran a small-scale study filming two Japanese babies from 6-12 months every 2 weeks. Mothers reported that their babies sometimes fake cried. Interestingly, while their babies typically looked sad before crying for real, they often looked happy before fake crying.

This study on fake crying opens up a lot of new questions. Is this pretending behaviour, and other potentially related pretend behaviours, such as pretend sleeping, common in a larger group of children, or not? And does this type of pretending have anything to do with the kinds of pretending most studied, such as object substitution, or pretending to be Spider Man? We hope you’ll help us find answers to these types of questions. That's why we are running the Early Pretending Survey this month, for anyone with a child between 0 and 47 months. We want to hear from you whether or not your child understands pretending yet, whatever country you are from, and whatever your child's type of development (e.g., typical, Down's syndrome, deaf, etc.) When lots of parents fill out lots of surveys, we can start to piece together when and why children develop their ability to pretend.

· Dr Elena Hoicka is a Lecturer (equivalent to Assistant Professor) in developmental psychology at the University of Sheffield, in England. Her research focuses on the early development of humour, pretending, deception, and learning.


Bosco, F. M., Friedman, O., & Leslie, A. M. (2006). Recognition of pretend and real actions in play by 1-and 2-year-olds: Early success and why they fail.Cognitive Development21(1), 3-10. 

Elder, J. L., & Pederson, D. R. (1978). Preschool children's use of objects in symbolic play. Child Development, 500-504.

Jackowitz, E. R., & Watson, M. W. (1980). Development of object transformations in early pretend play. Developmental Psychology16(6), 543.

Nakayama, H. (2013). Changes in the affect of infants before and after episodes of crying. Infant Behavior and Development36(4), 507-512.