Your Child's Brain in Week 103
Sometime very soon, you may catch your toddler feeding a plastic doughnut to her toy lion. Or she may load a toy dump truck with make-believe rocks and trees (and maybe also miniature plastic frogs and dinos), drive it somewhere ("Zoo!"), and then dump the whole load.
When these scenarios arise, realize that your child is—at long last!—pretending, or using objects symbolically to represent things in the real world. In fact, when coupled with her burgeoning imagination, toys and other props around your house will ultimately help your toddler reenact the real-life episodes she witnesses around her. What skill!
What the Research Shows
Researchers enlisted toddlers aged 15, 18, and 24 months and offered each one six test "episodes" involving pretend play. For any given episode, the researcher demonstrated how to do a specific task, then encouraged the child to complete the same sequence. For example, using props (a basin, dolls, and a towel) the researcher pretended to bathe two dolls, then pretended to dry just one. Next, she asked the child, "Can you use the towel to dry the baby who is all wet?" To complete the episode, the child would have had to keep track of the following:
- what had just happened—that is, what she had seen and comprehended that the researcher had done with the items
- the purpose of each prop (i.e., towels are for drying)
- which dolls had been "bathed" (and therefore were "wet," needing drying)
- which doll had been "dried" (and so didn't need attention)
- what steps were required of her now
So how did the toddler subjects fare?
Most of the 15-month-olds did not select the appropriate prop, so were unable to continue the pretend episode. (At this age, their receptive language, memory skills, and ability to follow the sequence of events weren't keen enough for them to recognize what the experimenter wanted.)
Toddlers at 18 months recognized that the adult experimenter was pretending. Many would mimic what the experimenter had done at the beginning of the episode but were unable to continue the pretend sequence as instructed.
The 24-month-olds were most successful: They understood each episode and entered into collaborative pretend play with the adult partner, keeping track of and finishing off the tasks as requested. In other words, at around two years old these toddlers' imaginations had developed enough that they could easily catch on to the pretend situations and to how they could be involved in them.