Learning & Behavior

, Volume 45, Issue 4, pp 441–448 | Cite as

The evolutionary significance of pretend play: Two-year-olds’ interpretation of behavioral cues



Pretend play begins very early in human life. A key question is why, when figuring out reality is young children’s major developmental task, they engage in its deliberate falsification. A second key question is how children know that pretend events are not real. Here we report three experiments addressing the latter question and providing indirect evidence for speculation on the first question. Children (N = 96) were shown actors eating or pretending to eat from covered bowls, and they had to indicate, on the basis of the actors’ behavioral signs, which actor was pretending to eat or had the real food. Even 24-month-olds could do so when the contents of the bowls were shown before the actions, and even when substitute objects were shown. However, when one of the bowls contained imaginary objects (i.e., was empty), even 30-month-olds could not indicate which actor was pretending. These studies show how the ability to interpret pretending from behavioral cues develops gradually as children’s representational abilities become more free of contextual support. We propose that, from an evolutionary and ontogenetic standpoint, pretend play might serve to heighten children’s sensitivity to social signs. This sensitivity could assist the development of theory of mind, with which social pretend play is associated. In this way, pretend play in humans might serve a similar purpose to play fighting in other species: In both cases, play might sensitize the organism to social signs that will allow for sophisticated coordination of social behavior later in life.


Play Symbolic representation Behavioral cues Social sensitizer Children 


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyRyerson UniversityTorontoCanada
  2. 2.University of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA

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