Pretend Play

In essence, to pretend is to engage in "acting as if"(Fein, 1981; Leslie, 1987), or what Garvey (1977, p. 72) referred to as the "voluntary transformation of the here and now, the you and me." Pretend actions are nonliteral and simulative (Fein, 1981) incorporating deliberate distortions that involve what McCune-Nicolich (1981) aptly referred to as "double knowledge"—knowledge of both the real and imagined properties of objects. Pretenders project an idea (e.g., serving tea) on to an actual situation (e.g., play partner's empty cup) (Lillard, 2001a) while clearly knowing the difference between the actual state of affairs and the nonactual situations they are enacting (Lillard, 2001b).

At least among North American and European children, there is reasonable consensus that pretend play begins during the early part of the second year often with brief "self-referenced" actions. Piaget's (1946/1962) classic observations of his own children illustrate this type of pretending, for example, Jacqueline (15 months) lying on her side and pretending to be asleep. Around this age children also begin to use props to assist their pretend action, for example, Jacqueline using the tail of a toy donkey as though it were a pillow (Piaget, 1946/1962). By 18 to 24 months, pretend play typically becomes more social in nature involving interactions with play partners, usually familiar adults or siblings/peers, as well as "replica" objects, such as dolls and toy animals. For example, a child might pretend to feed a doll, or to offer tea (an empty cup) to her mother. A further progression often observed in Western samples is that toward the middle of the third year (around age 2 1/2 years) children begin to ascribe make-believe states to replica objects. For example, a child might pretend that a baby doll placed on a bed is "sleeping". Attribution of an imagined animate state to an inanimate object has been called "passive" agency to distinguish it from "active" or independent agency in which children pretend that replica toys can carry out their own make-believe actions, e.g., the child uses a mother doll to pretend to give juice to a baby doll (Kavanaugh, Eizenman, & Harris, 1997).

Once children begin to incorporate independent agency into their pretend play the imagined scenarios they create become increasingly complex. By age 3 or 4 years, children assign make-believe emotions and simple moral judgments to dolls, stuffed animals, and other replica objects (e.g., a child proclaims that a "doll is bad to run away") followed by imagined cognitions (e.g., a child proclaims that a pirate figure "knows where to hide gold" so it won't be found) (Wolf, Rygh, & Altshuler, 1984, p. 202). In addition, by age 3 or 4 years, and even earlier among siblings and convivial peers (Dunn & Dale, 1984), children engage in shared pretend play that involves acting out complementary roles (e.g., doctor-patient or bus driver-passenger).

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