How pretend play helps children develop social cognition

If you work with children or have children of your own, you’re probably very familiar with pretend play. This refers to any play where children adopt an idea that differs from reality. This can happen in countless imaginative ways, such as pretending to drink tea out of an empty cup, pretending that a pillow is a pet dog, or roaring around the house pretending to be a dinosaur.

pretend play

The importance of playing pretend

Pretend play occurs with children as young as two years old. Research suggests that this is an important part of developing social cognition. When kids pretend that reality is different, they are developing the part of their brains that allows for sympathy and empathy. This kind of play lets them experiment with different perspectives. 

This goes a step further too. When playing with a child, if you pretend to drink from an empty cup, the child may follow your lead and do the same thing. What’s really occurring here is that the child is seeing your perspective, and responding how they feel is appropriate. This also comes into play when children play with friends and they both respond to the other’s actions.

Pretend play is one way that kids eventually develop the ability to attribute a mental state to another person, which we do all the time as adults. We read emotions, body language, and tone of voice, and form an understanding of how others feel. This is a huge part of what makes humans able to live together as a society and problem-solve together, so it’s an amazing and important skill!

Next time you see a child playing pretend, it’s pretty cool to know that they’re actually working on developing their social cognition. If you’re a parent or working with children, you can encourage and join in on the pretend play to help them in this process of developing social cognition! You might have a lot of fun pretending to attend a fancy tea party too.

Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

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