Skip to main content

Pretend play with objects: an ecological approach


The ecological approach to object pretend play, developed from the ecological perspective, suggests an action- and affordance based perspective to account for pretend object play. Theoretical, as well as empirical reasons, support the view that children in pretense incorporate objects into their play in a resourceful and functionally appropriate way based on the perception of affordances. Therefore, in pretense children are not distorting reality but rather, they are perceiving and acting upon action possibilities. In this paper, we argue for the viability of an ecological theoretical framework to pretend object play which has been traditionally understood as a representational and metarepresentational ability. We discuss the origins and basic assumptions of the ecological approach to pretense. We layout details by presenting a qualitative analysis of a pretend play episode and discuss the results of an experimental study inspired by the ecological assumptions. We discuss pretend object play in the context of ecological work on tool use. We address the relationship between the enactive and the ecological approaches to pretend play, pointing out similarities as well as differences. We conclude that ecological and enactive approaches have shown that it is possible to challenge accepted interpretations and seek explanatory frameworks that could move the field in new directions

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9


  1. 1.

    Agnes Szokolszky’s PhD dissertation, titled Using an object as if it were another: The perception and use of affordances in pretend object play” was submitted at the Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action (CESPA), at the University of Connecticut, in 1996. Her thesis advisor was Catherine Read.

  2. 2.

    Gibson used the term “information” for the structure in ambient light, but this is unfortunate due to the semiological implications of this term (cf., Jones and Read, in press). Therefore, we do not use this term which implies coding and communication.

  3. 3.

    The full sequnce was not described in this publication.

  4. 4.

    The enjoyment manifested in this and other pretend cooking episodes might have been the source of a life-long attraction to cooking; as an adult my son is a great cook and sees cooking as an artistic activity in his life (A.Sz.).

  5. 5.

    This is move beyond Gibson is going back to Koffka and the concept of Afforderungscharakter or the demand characteristics in the experienced field of the world. See Withagen et al. (2012) and also Webster, 2020 for a critique of equating Gibson’s idea of affordances with that of the Gestaltists.


  1. Amabile, T. (1996). Creativity in context: Update to “the social psychology of creativity.” Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Baggs, E., and Chemero, A. (2018). Radical embodiment in two directions. Synthese, 1–16.

  3. Bates, E. (1979). The biology of symbols: Some concluding thoughts. In E. Bates, I. Benigni, L. Camaioni, & V. Volterra (Eds.), The emergence of symbols: Cognition and communication in infancy (pp. 315–370). Academic Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  4. Bjorklund, D. F., & Gardiner, A. K. (2011). Object play and tool use: Developmental and evolutionary perspectives. In A. D. Pellegrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play (pp. 153–171). Oxford University Press.

  5. Bongers, R. M. (2001). An action perspective on tool use and its development. Ph.D. Thesis, KU Nijmegen.

  6. Chemero, A. (2003). An outline of a theory of affordances. Ecological Psychology, 15(2), 181–195.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Costall, A. (1995). Socializing affordances. Theory & Psychology, 5(4), 467–481.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Costall, A. (2003). From direct perception to the primacy of action: A closer look at James Gibson’s ecological approach to psychology. In G. J. Bremner & A. M. Slater (Eds.), Theories of infant development (pp. 70–89). Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Costall, A. (2012). Canonical affordances in context. AVANT., III(2), 85–93.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Currie, G. (2006). Rationality, decentring, and the evidence for pretence in non-human animals. In S. Hurley, M. Nudds (eds.) Rational Animals? 275–290. University Press.

  11. De Preester, H. (2012). The sensory component of imagination: The motor theory of imagination as a present-day solution to Sartre’s critique. Philosophical Psychology, 25(4), 503–520.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Dent-Read, C. H. (1997). A naturalistic study of metaphor development: Seeing and seeing as. In C. E. Dent-Read & P. E. Zukow-Goldring (Eds.), Evolving explanations of development: Ecological approaches to organism–Environment systems (pp. 255–296). American Psychological Association.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  13. Di Paolo, E. A. (2016). Across the Uncanny Valley: The Ecological, the Enactive, and the Strangely Familiar. Constructivist Foundations, 11(2), 327–329.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Fajen, B. R. (2007). Affordance-based control of visually guided action. Ecological Psychology, 19(4), 383–410.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Fehr, K. K., & Russ, S. W. (2016). Pretend play and creativity in preschool-age children: Associations and brief intervention. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10(3), 296–301.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Fodor, J. A. (1975). The language of thought (Vol. 5). Harvard University Press.

  17. Fultot, M., Nie, L., & Carello, C. (2016). Perception-action mutuality obviates mental construction. Constructivist Foundations, 11(2), 298–307.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Harris, P., & Kavanaugh, R. D. (1993). Young children's understanding of pretense. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev, 58(1).

  19. Heft, H. (2020). Ecological psychology and enaction theory: divergent groundings. Front psychol, 11, 991.

  20. Hodges, B. H. (2014). “Righting language: a view from ecological psychology.” Language Sciences 41, 93–103.

  21. Gibson, J. J. (1966). The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Houghton Mifflin.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Gibson, J. J. (1967). New reasons for realism. Synthese, 17(1), 162–172.

  23. Gibson, J. J. (1979/2014). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Houghton Mifflin.

  24. Gibson, J. J. (1982). Notes on affordances. In: Reasons for realism: Selected essays of James J. Gibson. Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc Incorporated. Erlbaum.

  25. Good, J. M. (2007). The affordances for social psychology of the ecological approach to social knowing. Theory Psychol, 17(2), 265–295.

  26. Gopnik, A., & Walker, C. M. (2013). Considering Counterfactuals: The Relationship between Causal Learning and Pretend Play. Am J Play, 6(1), 15–28.

  27. Heft, H. (1990). Perceiving affordances in context: A reply to Chow. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 20(3), 277–284.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Heras-Escribano, M. (2019). The philosophy of affordances. Palgrave Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  29. Hoff, E. V. (2013). The relationship between pretend play and creativity. The Oxford handbook of the development of imagination, 403–416.

  30. Kahrs, B. A., Jung, W. P., & Lockman, J. J. (2013). Motor origins of tool use. Child Development, 84(3), 810–816.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Kiverstein, J. D., & Rietveld, E. (2018). Reconceiving representation-hungry cognition: An ecological-enactive proposal. Adaptive Behavior, 26(4), 147–163.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Kiverstein, J., van Dijk, L., & Rietveld, E. (2019). The field and landscape of affordances: Koffka’s two environments revisited. Synthese, 1–18.

  33. Koffka, K. (1935). Principles of Gestalt psychology. Harcourt, Brace, & World.

  34. Kugler, P. N., Shaw, R. E., Vincente, K. J., & Kinsella-Shaw, J. (1990). Inquiry into intentional systems I: Issues in ecological physics. Psychological Research, 52(2–3), 98–121.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Leslie, A. M. (1987). Pretense and representation: The origins of “theory of mind”. Psychological Review, 94(4), 412–426.

  36. Lillard, A. S. (1993). Young children’s conceptualization of pretense: Action or mental representational state? Child Development, 64, 372–386.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Lillard, A. (2001). Pretend play as twin earth: A social-cognitive analysis. Developmental Review, 21(4), 495–531.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Lillard, A. S. (2015). The development of play. In Lerner (Ed.) Handbook of child psychology and developmental science, Ch.11., 425–468.

  39. Lockman, J. J. (2000). A perception–action perspective on tool use development. Child Development, 71(1), 137–144.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Lockman, J. J., & Kahrs, B. A. (2017). New insights into the development of human tool use. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(4), 330–334.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Loveland, K. A. (1991). Social affordances and interaction II: Autism and the affordances of the human environment. Ecological Psychology, 3(2), 99–119.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Mace, W. M. (2005). James J. Gibson’s ecological approach: Perceiving what exists. Ethics and the Environment, 10(2), 195–216.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945/2014). Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge.

  44. Musatti, T., & Mayer, S. (1987). Object substitution: Its nature and function in early pretend play. Hum Dev, 30(4), 225–235.

  45. Nichols, S., & Stich, S. (2003). Mindreading: An Integrated Account of Pretence, Self-Awareness and Understanding of Other Minds. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  46. Noë, A., & Thompson, E. (2004). Are there neural correlates of consciousness? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 11(1), 3–28.

    Google Scholar 

  47. O’Regan, J. K., & Noë, A. (2001). A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(5), 939–1031.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. W.W. Norton.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  49. Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Piaget, J. and lnhelder, B. (1969) The psychology of the child. Basic Books, New York.

  51. Read, C., & Szokolszky, A. (2018). An emerging developmental ecological psychology: Future directions and potentials. Ecological Psychology, 30(2), 174–194.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Read, C., and Szokolszky, A. (2020). Ecological Psychology and Enactivism: Perceptually-Guided Action vs. Sensation-Based Enaction. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.

  53. Rietveld, E., & Kiverstein, J. (2014). A rich landscape of affordances. Ecological Psychology, 26(4), 325–352.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Rucinska, Z. (2014). Basic pretending as sensorimotor engagement?. In Contemporary sensorimotor theory (pp. 175–187). Springer.

  55. Rucińska, Z. (2016a). Enactive mechanism of make-belief games. In Digital make-believe (pp. 141–160). Springer.

  56. Rucińska, Z. (2016b). What guides pretence? Towards the interactive and the narrative approaches. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 117–133.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Rucińska, Z. (2017). The role of affordances in pretend play. Embodiment, enaction, and culture: Investigating the constitution of the shared world, 257–278.

  58. Rucińska, Z. (2019). Social and Enactive Perspectives on Pretending. AVANT. Pismo Awangardy Filozoficzno-Naukowej, 3, 1–27.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Rucinska, Z., & Reijmers, E. (2014). Between philosophy and therapy: Understanding systemic play therapy through embodied and enactive cognition (EEC). InterAction-The journal of Solution Focus in organisations, 6(1), 37–52.

  60. Rucinska, Z., & Reijmers, E. (2015). Enactive account of pretend play and its application to therapy. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 175.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Shaw, R. (2011). Ecological realism as a reaction to new realism: Holt’s legacy to Gibson. In E. P. Charles (Ed.), A new look at new realism: The psychology and philosophy of EB Holt (pp. 157–190). Transaction.

  62. Shaw, R., and Mace, W. (2005). “The value of oriented geometry for ecological psychology and moving image art,” in Moving Image Theory: Ecological Considerations, eds A. Anderson and B. Anderson (Southern Illinois University Press).

  63. Shaw, R. E. Turvey, M. T., & Mace, W. (1982). Ecological psychology: The con- sequences of a commitment to realism. In W. Weimer & D. Palermo (Eds.), Cognition and the symbolic processes (Vol. 2.). Erlbaum

  64. Smith, P. K., & Dutton, S. (1979). Play training in direct 84 and innovative problem solving. Child Development, 50(85), 830–836.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Smitsman, A. W. (1997). The development of tool use: Changing boundaries between organism and environment In: C. E. Dent-Read, & P. E. Zukow-Goldring (1997). Evolving explanations of development: Ecological approaches to organism–environment systems (297–330). American Psychological Association, 301–330.

  66. Smitsman, A., and Bongers, R. (2003). Tool use and tool making: A developmental action perspective. Handbook of developmental psychology, 172–193.

  67. Suchman, L. A. (2007). Plans and situated actions: The problem of human-machine communication. Cambridge university press.

  68. Szokolszky, A. (1996). Using an object as if it were another: The perception and use of affordances in pretend object play. CT, USA: University of Connecticut. UNI order number: AAM9605501 Dissertation Abstract International: SectionB: The Sciences and Engineering.

  69. Szokolszky, A. (1997). Using An Object As If It Were Another: The Perception And Use Of Affordances In Pretend Object Play. In M. A. Schmuckler, & J. M. Kennedy. Studies in Perception and Action IV: Ninth Annual Conference on Perception and Action (p. 153). Psychology Press.

  70. Szokolszky, A. (2006). Object use in pretend play: Symbolic or functional? In A. Costall & O. Dreier (Eds.), Doing things with things: The design and use of everyday objects (pp. 67–86). Ashgate Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  71. Szokolszky, A., Read, C., Palatinus, Z., & Palatinus, K. (2019). Ecological approaches to perceptual learning: Learning to perceive and perceiving as learning. Adaptive Behavior, 27(6), 363–388.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Szokolszky, Schmuckler, M. A., Kennedy, J. M. (2013). Using An Object As If It Were Another: The Perception And Use Of Afi ‘ordances In Pretend Object Play. In Studies in Perception and Action IV: Ninth Annual Conference on Perception and Action (p. 153). Psychology Press.

  73. Turvey, M. T. (1992). Affordances and prospective control: An outline of the ontology. Ecological Psychology, 4(3), 173–187.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. Turvey, M. T., Shaw, R. E., Reed, E. S., & Mace, W. M. (1981). Ecological laws of perceiving and acting: In reply to Fodor and Pylyshyn (1981). Cognition, 9(3), 237–304.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. Van Dijk, L., & Myin, E. (2019). Reasons for pragmatism: Affording epistemic contact in a shared environment. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 18(5), 973–997.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  76. Van Leeuwen, L., Smitsman, A., & van Leeuwen, C. (1994). Affordances, perceptual complexity, and the development of tool use. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 20(1), 174.

    Google Scholar 

  77. Vygotsky, L. S. (1976). Play and its role in the mental development of the child. In J. S. Bruner, A. Jolly, & K. Sylva (Eds.), Play - Its role in development and evolution (pp. 538–554). Basic Books, Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  78. Vygotsky, L. S. (1981). The instrumental method in psychology. In J. V. Wertsch (Ed.), The concept of activity in Soviet psychology. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

  79. Webster, D. (2020). Prefatory Notes to Kiverstein, van Dijk and Reitveld (2019) “The field and landscape of affordance: Koffka's two environments revisited” Online at: Date retrieved 4/21/2020

  80. Weimer, W. B., & Palermo, D. S. (Eds.) (1982). Gibson-Shaw Discussion. Cognition and the Symbolic Processes, Vol. 2, 229. Erlbaum, 227–239.

  81. Withagen, R., De Poel, H. J., Araújo, D., & Pepping, G. J. (2012). Affordances can invite behavior: Reconsidering the relationship between affordances and agency. New Ideas in Psychology, 30(2), 250–258.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  82. Witherington, D. C., & Heying, S. (2013). Embodiment and agency: Toward a holistic synthesis for developmental science. In Advances in child development and behavior (Vol. 44, pp. 161–192).

  83. Witt, J. K., & Riley, M. A. (2014). Discovering your inner Gibson: Reconciling action-specific and ecological approaches to perception–action. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 21(6), 1353–1370.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  84. Zukow, P. G. (1984). Criteria for the emergence of symbolic conduct: When words refer and play is symbolic. In L. Feagans, C. Garvey and R. Golinkoff (Eds.), The origins and growth of communication. 162–175. NJ: Ablex.

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Agnes Szokolszky.

Additional information

Publisher's note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Szokolszky, A., Read, C. Pretend play with objects: an ecological approach. Phenom Cogn Sci (2021).

Download citation


  • Ecological account of pretense
  • Enactive account of pretense
  • Pretend object play
  • Non-representational account of pretend play
  • Ecological Psychology