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Why do the children pretend play? [pdf] (iu.edu)
54 points by lofties 27 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 51 comments

As a kid I remember that my imagination was way more strong and vivid. When pretend playing e.g. being a pilot of a plane with my cousin , it felt good as if we were doing it in real. Of course we didn't know what the real thing was like. But it did evoke strong visual fantasy feelings.

I got the same feelings reading books with lots of colorful cartoons and things. I use to have a book with characters doing something with icecream so tall it's coming from helicopter or something. They all used to feel SOLID and REAL. Then I grew up and found that book again after many years. I couldn't see those characters and things as real objects anymore.

I haven't read this pdf but I believe other kids do it for the same. Imagination is strong and they could do and be anything pretending.

Interesting. I don't recall ever using my imagination actively like this. I didn't understand why other kids liked dolls/action figures. I read voraciously, and the words would paint pictures for me, and I spent countless hours with construction-type toys (Lego, Erector sets). But I guess it never occurred to me to want to be someone else.

Seems like the most obvious answer is that the child is practicing/training for future real world situations they will encounter.

In the days before TV etc, what was the alternative? Sitting there with their minds blank? It seems obvious that pretend play helps them develop their minds and capabilities.

Listening to pretend play chatter (as a parent), I find that topics in the play world often reflect recent real world events. I always figured that children must be reprocessing and reinterpreting their experiences for learning and understanding.

My daughter is seven and she is a hard core pretend-player. Hers rarely have much to do with real world events (about 50% of the time she is pretending to be an animal, these days mostly tigers and cheetahs and such but often unicorns etc), but they do get pretty elaborate.

I always thought of dreams as being a lot of reprocessing and reinterpreting.

Either way, watching kids do this (which is fascinating and I will miss it when she grows out of it) makes me wonder why anyone would question the value of it. Just like physical play (running jumping climbing throwing etc) will prepare you for when you need it, such as when you need to hunt for food or avoid being hunted.

> why anyone would question the value of it.

I once heard an account, the gist of which was, the man who first wrote the [authoritative] book on play behavior in different animals was unable to get tenure.

This was in the context of noting that play in general had been undervalued as a subject.

My parents never let us have a television except for around Christmas. My dad would buy a cheap TV set and we’d watch holiday movies but after Christmas it went in the trash. We amused ourselves by playing Star Wars in the yard with hockey sticks for light sabers. I’ve fought Darth Vader (my brother) more times than I care to remember and sure got a lot of bruises in the process.

Your dad would spend hundreds of dollars on a TV set every year and then throw it in the trash after a couple of weeks???

That sounds insane.

Yeah he was a scientist and a total madman. He thought TV was unhealthy and made us read books instead. I ended up working at an investment bank.

He did teach me to how to brew beer though, so his Phd wasn’t a total loss for us kids.

But why break his standards at Christmas time?

Because exceptions don’t form habits? I don’t get my kids presents constantly, but I will on Christmas. There is also a pretty clear difference between watching miracle on 34th street vs whatever schlock happens to be on.


I dunno, I guess because he was my Dad, and that’s good enough for me.

When did a "cheap TV" cost hundreds of dollars? Seems more likely it was something closer to an 80 dollar thrift store TV that returned to the thrift store in January.

The 80s!

In the 80s (at least the late 80s) you could get 13” TVs at a thrift store or garage sale fairly cheaply. Probably B&W though.

fascinating; do you have a family of your own? Did you try to emulate this approach? If yes then what were your results?

I think it is less divisive than that. Children are just learning how to externalize their imagination into real "what if this happens" scenarios. There is only so many iterations of that until puberty throws another big variable into the mix.

Not sure what you mean by "divisive."

I think "externalize their imaginations into real what if this happens scenarios" is pretty much what I was saying, although maybe I am tying it a bit more to why it is useful: i.e. practicing for real things that could happen, so they will be able to handle those situations better than if they had never considered such possibilities previously.

I know the whole "children back in my day" thing occurs for every generation, but I seriously think there was some kind of turning point or singularity that accelerated decline with the advent of the smartphone. Pretend play, learning to have fluent spoken conversation, regulating emotions with other people, negotiating - all replaced with screen time and online-only interactions that humans are not adapted for.

I don’t think they’re replacing pretend play. My kids just played Minecraft for an hour, and are now engaged in making “tables” by stacking bean bags on each other then jumping on top of them. My 5 year old has a pretend language, even.

My experiences follow yours. My nephews/nieces are obsessed with Fortnite and video games in general; they'll play it for hours until their mom or dad tells them to cut it out and go play outside, where they will proceed to pretend-play "king and princess" (there can't be dragons because "she will be too scared"), or "house" in an old barbecue box, or any number of invented games. Or they will make pretend cheese soup in toy pots and pans and go around "serving" it to everyone.

Nothing like a good cheese soup, especially if it has a dragon in it - they really add to the flavor.

Ewww , my dragon got burnt

My kids (5 and 7) spend about as much time interacting with electronics as I did at their age, it’s just iPads/YouTube and Nintendo Switch instead of broadcast TV and NES. The majority of their time is spent playing with dolls, lego, writing stories, etc. They recently turned the playroom into a “Toy Cafe” featuring slime smoothies and poppit cookies.

These things are so new, the effects of this are still completely unclear. You may ultimately be right in saying "decline" but that word still feels premature because objectively we don't know.

Take a look at human history and consider how often we have behaved in antisocially as we harassed, harmed, or otherwise slaughtered each other by the hundreds of millions. It's not as if we're some ideal model that would be bad for future generations to completely deviate from.

Therefore my hypothesis is that it's equally possible something so dramatic and counterintuitive as the changes we see these days may actually be necessary to create a world we've only dreamed to achieve for millennia.

I don't put a hard cap on screen time with my 2 year old, and he spends a ton of time playing by himself. Watching him do the pretend play thing is pretty fascinating, to be honest.

I'm assuming you don't have kids and only have limited interaction with kids in other social context. If we have friends over or something we try to put something on TV to keep the toddler occupied so we can have a discussion, but that's far from the norm. He spends most of the time each day playing with his toys, pretend playing, running around, etc. etc. - and again, I work from home and I'm not strict about limiting his TV time, he chooses to do other stuff the majority of the day.

> I'm assuming you don't have kids and only have limited interaction with kids in other social context

That you have experience does not make your views universal amongst persons with experience.

I am currently trying to get used to NOT play on cellphones myself, I don't have children yet but I want to have them soon, and I don't want them to interact with cellphones at all until a certain age.

I created a company, named "Kidoteca", to make games for small kids, the main idea of the company wasn't mine, but to me it felt a good idea.

But after I saw the behaviour of other kids when interacting with cell phones, for example my nephews and little cousins, it became clear to me it was a net negative, for example one thing I noticed: my nephews whenever they see me, they immediately demand to see my phone, and sometimes they get outright aggressive about it, after a while that I've stopped letting them use my phone, it got better, but after another person gave them a phone to use, all their bad behaviour came back, with them getting aggressive all over again.

Kids are interesting. Some of our friends' kids can just sit patiently with their parents and learn things. They're reading at two years old, are bilingual, and can count to 100. My 3 year old can spot me trying to teach her instantly and will yell out "daddy don't teach me!". So I have to get a bit creative. We pretend play every night with legos, magnet blocks, and different characters and sometimes so in an attempt to teach her we build classrooms and have one of the characters teach a lesson (e.g. about egypt, counting, spelling, etc). But this isn't really a good method :)

We tried ABC mouse and it was OK. I'm actually amazed at how good she is with the mac touchpad. But in general I dislike that many companies are focusing on tablet apps. I just purchased a LeapFrog LeapStart specifically because it is not a tablet. I wish there were more products like this.

I used to play a lot of games on the canadian public broadcasters webpage with my nephew. taught him to use a mouse. now as a teenager he sends all his time playing online games and says games are his life, takes his pc on holiday with him.. There's a chance this isnt my fault,haha.


Heh, in Spanish we have the term ludoteca, which could be translated as "playroom". When I was a kid we had a dedicated room at school with comic books, tabletop games, card games and so on.

While there may be differences with interactive touch-screens and there will definitely be effects, they also said the same thing about television (and radio before that, and even books before that). We are already far removed from what were were "adapted for".

When I had my first kid, I was pretty surprised how early she started "pretending". Before my daughter could say more then a few words, before her motor skills were developed enough to do more then pick up and drop small her toys, etc. she was already moving her toys around like they were real animals, pretending to feed them, etc. She couldnt have had much understanding of the real world before she started making an imagined one.

My kids have not done that. Which leads me to question: did adults mimic pretend play like that with her when they were socializing with her? I have seen adults do it in front of kids as attempts to interact with them. But we did not done that and our kids have not done that until much later.

Starting somewhat earlier, she also mimicked adults pretending, we'd pretend to talk into her toy phone for example, and then she'd do the same. I think in those cases, it was pretty clear she was just mimicking, not pretending.

The play with dolls seems more explicitly pretend though. I dont think she saw adults to it first (though once she started, they definately joined in and reinforced the behavior though). She's still mimicking our behaviors, trying to feed the doll like we feed her, etc. But she uses toy bottles to do so, not the real ones, and she doesn't try to feed other real babies when she encounters them.

I suspect explicit mimicking and pretend play are something of a spectrum. We start trying to exactly copy the adult behavior around us, and then start abstracting bits.

There's a really great TED talk from Peter Gray[0] "The decline of play." It's a great talk about how play has transformed and eroded through the late 20th century.

[0]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg-GEzM7iTk

I think they are just reliving different versions of stories/scenarios they know and their mind is just filling up the gaps.

Based on my observation, it is training for future negotiations. Pretend play is a lot of negotiating and less playing.

Care to expand?

Not gp, but when I was a kid, I remember playing with my peers in a sandbox. We built a sand military complex and had few military equipment units as well. Half (if not most) of the time we negotiated what these can and cannot do against an enemy and a landscape, and whether it is able to go over this or that hill. (It can, no it cannot, no it can, I’ve seen on the tv). The play continued only after physics were settled or we fought irl. We were not in the age when you know much about it, it was just a negotiation, because otherwise it would be a quickly escalating anarchy which everyone avoided. Simply ignoring the settled rules was highly disrespected (we will not play with him, etc).

They negotiate pretend play before playing. Who is going to be what, what the goal of each character is, what are abilities and limitation.

The brain is a "prediction machine" that uses experiences to build the model of the outside world. Play is how you train that model for situations you can't or haven't experienced but are likely very critical.

The example given is how you practice and learn empathy by playing another person. It can also be used to practice and learn physical traits of inanimate things as if they were animate behaviors.

Animals aren't "prediction machines" which "build models". This computational statistical framing is as much a misdirection as the "cogs & springs" model of the era when that was the new technology.

Animals are biological organisms which grow. They grow their muscles, tissues, organs, nervous system, and so on. They learn to swivel their eyes, and coordinate it with their hands. (Growth isn't a computational process.)

This can be characterised as "prediction" in the same sense that a gas flame under a pot "predicts" the boiling of the water. And "modelling" as much as a burn on the pot "models" the flame.

Play is a sensory-motor physical adaption of the bodies of animals so they can grow sensory-motor techniques to manipulate their bodies and environments.

It is in a very small number of animals do these techniques become abstracted into a discrete form of propositional intelligence. It is absolutely critical however, that this propositional intelligence is just grounded in sensory-motor techniques.

You cannot "build" a model of an environment, because environments are infinitely informationally dense (ie., they are continuous and any discrete computational process renders that density as an infinity). So "model acquisition" is a continuous process, in this case, a type of growth not 'construction'.

When composing propositions in 'propositional intelligence' humans are able to use discrete processes to form novel concepts, but that is rare in the animal kingdom -- and grounded in the growth patterns which furnish cognition with primitive sensory-motor concepts.

Someone has been drinking too much from the neural network philosophy well.

I never did & I resent the claim that it's universal

The title here needs a (2017)

Don't all mammals do this? If you have had puppies or kittens, you know they start playing with each other even before their eyes fully open.

Also, it seems that even puppies have a sense of 'fairness' when they play with each other.

For hunting animals, that kind of play is also an important step in learning how to control the level of force they use, as their fellows will loudly protest if they claw or bite too hard and the animal can pick up on the difference between that and normal play noises.

Are you talking about playing or pretend playing? The latter is more specific.

The article makes the argument that that sort of play is an analogue of pretend play, since it's using real hunting behavior but with the animal clearly understanding they're not actually going for the kill.

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