How do children learn how to joke or play pretend? A study from University of Sheffield’s Department of Psychology reveals that children as young as 16 months can learn how to joke and pretend by playing with their parents. It may seem counterintuitive, but silly behavior can help children learn. Learning to pretend and make jokes leads children to developing critical skills like abstract thinking.
The researchers conducted two experiments in which parents played with their young children. In the first experiment, parents played with their 16 to 20-month-old children, joking and pretending using actions. The parents joked by misusing objects like putting food on their heads and played pretend in activities like washing their hands without soap or water. In the second experiment, parents played with their 20 to 24-month-old children, joking and pretending using language. The parents joked by mismatching items, like saying a toy chicken was a hat. They participated in pretended play activities like telling children that a block was a horse.
When playing with children, parents can offer explicit cues to help them learn the difference between pretending and joking. With appropriate cues, toddlers as young as 16 months can tell the difference between the two. Parents showed more disbelief and less belief in their actions and language when joking than pretending. The children responded by mirroring parents.
“The study shows just how important play is to children’s development. Parents who pretend and joke with their children offer cues to distinguish the difference between the two and toddlers take advantage of these cues to perform,” stated Dr. Elena Hoicka, from the Department of Psychology. “The research reveals the process in which toddlers learn to distinguish joking and pretending.”
Learning to joke and pretend allows children to bond with others and develop important life skills. Joking, for example, is important in maintaining relationships, while pretending can help children learn and practice new skills.
This research is published in the journal Cognitive Science.
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