Different stages of pretend play and how they relate to language development

I was browsing through a blog post by Developing Intelligence and came across this link to a talk by Greenfield et al, regarding pretend play capabilities of Chimpanzees and Bonobos. In this, it is asserted that Chimpanzees and Bonobos are able to achieve level4 of pretend play, that is observed in Humans by themselves and if they are scaffolded or guided by Humans in their Zone of Proximal Development, they can also achieve the stage 5 (the highest stage achieved) . The levels were levels of pretend play as described by McCune and Agayoff (2002) and based on descriptions by Piaget (1951). No web searches by me could lead me to the definition of these levels on the web and I would be glad if any of the readers of this blog, who are familiar with these levels, could update me on this by posting in the comments.

However, I did come across some other levels or stages associated with pretend play and could link them up with my previous postings on moral, cognitive, perspective and language development.

To outline my position, I intend to show that pretend play or Symbolic play follows the same stages as involved in language acquisition and the analogy is true for both Language syntax as well as lexicon acquisition. Further, it may be the case, that pretend play stages precede corresponding language stages and are necessary for successful language acquisition in all stages.

First, I would like to distinguish between the form of pretend play and its contents. The form of pretend play may consist of different predicates

  • An Agent that is pretending (or the Role (R))
  • A pretentious or false act (this is the Pretense (P))
  • A false representation of an object (this is the substituted object (O))

Thus, a pretend play P = R P O

The child may start initially start by forming a concept of pretenses as something that is not really true (stage I); start creating pretenses with real life objects e.g. using real life objects in pretentious acts (like pretended talking on an actual mobile) (stage II); gradually combine two of these (using banana as a mobile and pretending to talk on it) (stage III); gradually graduate to elaborate pretensions whereby not only objects stand for something else and actions stand for something else, but also the role assumed by the child may vary, and is usually that of adults (stage IV); and in later stages the roles , object-representations etc may even be novel and not something that the child has encountered in its usual socializing (stage V).

This staged manner is analogous in language acquisition to babbling (whereby one starts creating words), one word speech (whereby one starts using a word for representing a thing), two word speech (whereby one combines actions, nouns etc in two word phrases to create sentences) and finally telegraphic speech (too much bound by rules learned from observation of adults) and finally adult speech based on pragmatics.

More interesting is some stages described in “Multiple Perspectives on Play in Early Childhood Education” By Olivia N Saracho, Bernard Spodek for individual lexicons- like that for object substitution.

Elena Bugrimenko and Elena Sminova have proposed five stages in symbolic play (ages 18 to 30 months)

  • Stage 1 : Children play only with realistic toys and show no interest in object substitution performed by adults
  • Stage 2: Children automatically imitate adult-initiated object substitutions, but do not appear to understand that one object has been substituted for other.
  • Stage 3: Children independently imitate object substitutions previously performed by an adult.
  • Stage4: Children initiate their own object substitutions, but do not rename the objects with substitute names
  • Stage 5: Children originate and rename

It is interesting to note that individual elements of a pretend play like object-substitution, themselves go through developmental stages.

Another interesting study mentioned in “Understanding Child Development: For Adults Who Work with Young Children” By Rosalind Charlesworth refers to the actual pretense act and how that pretense act becomes more complex as the child goes through different developmental stages. In the following example, the ‘pretended act of feeding/eating’ should be considered.

According to Nicolich(1977), toddlers develop through a sequence of stages in their play, as seen in the following example:

  • Stage 1: Rudy picks up a spoon, looks at it, puts in his mouth, hangs it on the floor, and drops it.
  • Stage2: Rudy picks up the spoon and pretends to eat.
  • Stage 3: Rudy uses the spoon to feed a doll.
  • Stage 4: Rudy mixes up some pretend food in a pan with the spoon. He uses the spoon to put some pretend food in a dish. He then proceeds to eat, using the same spoon.
  • Stage 5: Rudy goes to the shelf. He takes a plate, cup, and saucer and carefully places them on the table. He returns to the shelf and gets a spoon, knife and fork with which he completes the place setting. His mother sits at the table. Rudy says. ‘Soup, mom’. He feeds her with the spoon.

It is interesting to observe that in the above examples, the child in stage 1 is developing his sensory-motor abilities to indulge in a pretend act of eating; in stage 2 he actually indulges in a pretend act that is directed towards himself. In stage 3, he directs the pretense act towards someone else ( a doll) , in stage 4 he goes through a sequence of activities and rituals as observed in a normal social context, in stage 5 he indulges in elaborate planning, setting up the stage and understands that other people can also pretend juts like him and directs the pretend act towards another human being.

To develop the staged theory of pretend play further, consider role-playing agent (that is the child indulging in pretense play). The discussion is based on the following stages (doc) available on the web. (italicized comments mine)

Stage I: Imitative Role Play: In this initial stage of play, children try to act, talk, and dress like people they know. Children use real objects as props. They depend on an element of reality in their play. For instance, a child may pick up a telephone and pretend to “talk on the phone like Mommy” or hold a doll and “feed the baby.” One starts developing a concept of a ‘pretended role’ but needs to ground that with the actual props that are used and this play is a solitary activity.

Stage II: Make-Believe Play: In the second stage, children’s play is enriched by their imaginations. Now less dependent on concrete props for role-playing, children may use a string as a firefighter’s hose, or an envelope may be Mommy’s briefcase. The ability to make-believe moves beyond the scope of real props or costumes. Children also learn to use their imaginations to invent actions and situations. Dramatic play is no longer confined to real-life events. At this stage, children often use such play to help them understand feelings or deal with fears and worries. Point to note that one has developed a concept of ‘pretend roles’ and does not need to depend on external props for achieving that role. The role-playing is still mostly a solitary activity.

Stage III: Socio-Dramatic Play: Socio-dramatic play emerges at the time children begin seeking the company of others. Socio-dramatic play includes elements of imitative play and make-believe play; however, it stands apart from the earlier stages in that it requires verbal interaction between two or more children. Because of its interactive nature, socio-dramatic play necessitates planning. One child chooses to be the teacher and the other the student; one child can be a firefighter and the other a would-be victim. Because of its more complex story lines, socio-dramatic play requires that children spend a significant amount of time in this type of play. This play, in my view, is characterized by role-play involving two persons. One knows what role one is supposed to play and what the other person has to play and one may even switch roles during the play. This marks the beginning of ‘social’ pretend play.

To the above stages I will add two of my own stages of role-playing:

Stage IV : Mythological/ Archetypal / adult role playing
: Here the child may enact the different roles played by mythological or archetypal characters that are prevalent in his culture. He may one minute play Ravana, the next Rama, the next Laxmana, the next Jatauyu and the next Sita (all characters of Ramayana). Thus, he starts understanding that one may have different roles and pretenses at different times and a typical sequence of play would involve permuting between different roles in succession. One is exposed to not only the fact that different roles can be assumed sequentially, but also gets exposed to how it feels to act in that particular social role that is prevalent in one’s culture. One would normally imitate adult roles and also play with adults (mother) in this role-playing.

Stage V: Novel role-playing: Here the role-playing with peers becomes more important. Also one seeks novel roles like that of an Alien invader and uses the imagination to come up with novel pretend roles. One may pretend to be novel animals – an El-zebra – an elephant that has stripes and runs very fast. One may pretend not to be a ‘role’ like a doctor, but a ‘person’ like one’s best friend and say that I am Bill and act like Bill (for e.g. cuddling dolls like Bill does). Thus, one may move from ‘pretend roles’ to pretend persons’ and even go on the do mimicry using voice intonation, gait etc to pretend to be another person!! One has mastered the art of pretend role-playing.

I’ll briefly try to link this up with another post by Developing Intelligence relating symbol usage with Language development/evolution. Please read the post now, as I wont repeat the arguments made by David Premack here and assume that the reader has read them via the above link.

Premack tries to make an argument for uniqueness of existence of language in Humans due to some Symbol manipulation related abilities that we humans have over other apes. I’ll not go into the argument whether, and to what extent, these capabilities exist in Apes (I guess Premack is a sufficiently good authority on that), but will try to show how those symbolic abilities unique to humans, as outlined, are involved in the staged development of pretend play.

  • Voluntary Control of Motor Behavior. Premack argues that because both vocalization and facial expression are largely involuntary in the chimpanzee, they are incapable of developing a symbol system like speech or sign language. This relates to the first stage of a pretend act development. Rudy because of the ability for voluntary control of hands can grasp and move the spoon to make a pretend act of eating.
  • Imitation. Because chimpanzees can only imitate an actor’s actions on an object, but not the actions in the absence of the object that was acted upon, Premack suggests that language cannot evolve. This is the requirement for Stage 2 pretense act. Even when the object (food) is not there, Rudy can still act, as-if, the food is present and thus pretend to eat it.
  • Teaching. Premack claims that teaching behaviors are strictly human, defining teaching as “reverse imitation” – in which a model actor observes and corrects an imitator. This may be required for third stage wherein Rudy may actually be ‘teaching’ the doll how to eat. Feeding the doll, gives Rudy an opportunity to indulge in reverse imitation and correction.
  • Theory of Mind. Chimps can ascribe goals to others’ actions, but Premack suggests these attributions are limited in recursion (i.e., no “I think you thought he would have thought that.”) Premack states that because recursion is a necessary component of human language, and because all other animals lack recursion, they cannot possibly evolve human language. This may relate to both stage 4 and 5 wherein Rudy is able to sequence multiple pretensions (adding raw material, cooking, eating , serving) and thus also acquires the ability to sequence (or recurse or embed) multiple abstract symbolic representations. Rudy may also exhibit stage 5 awareness of ascribing the goal of ‘having food’ or ‘being hungry’ to Mom who would thus be willing to collaborate in the pretend play.
  • Grammar. Not only do chimps use nonrecursive grammars, they also use only words that are grounded in sensory experience – according to Premack, all attempts have failed to train chimps to use words with meanings grounded in metaphor rather than sensory experience. This use of metaphorical symbolic representation may be related to the fact that in stage 5 Rudy can draw an analogy between the pretend act of feeding oneself and the pretend act of feeding the m0m. The original act of feeding self that was replaced by the pretended act of feeding self has been replaced and construed as analogous to feeding someone else.
  • Intelligence. Here Premack suggests that the uniquely human characteristics of language are supported by human intelligence. Our capacity to flexibly recombine pieces of sensory experience supports language, while the relative lack of such flexibility in other animals precludes them from using human-language like symbol systems. For this we will have to go to stages 6, 7 and 8:-)

To sum up, there seem to be interesting parallels involved in all developmental stages, be that of Moral development, Language development or Symbolic Usage (Pretend Play) development and this tells us about some of the constraints, templates and guidelines under which development takes place.

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3 thoughts on “Different stages of pretend play and how they relate to language development

  1. Chris Chatham

    Fascinating! Great post.

    Since you asked, here’s the definition of each stage as in the Lynn et al paper:

    Level 1: Presymbolic schemes – child or ape shows understanding of object use or meaning by action – no pretending

    Level 2: Self-pretend/auto-symbolic games –
    Child or ape pretends at self-related
    activities while showing elaborations
    such as sound effects, affect and/or
    gesture and an awareness of the
    pretend aspects of the behavior

    Level 3: Single representational play acts –
    Including other actors or receivers
    action (doll, mother) – Pretending
    activities of other living creatures
    objects (dogs, trucks, trains, etc.)

    Level 4: Combinatorial pretend—single
    scheme applied to multiple recipients
    or multiple schemes applied to a
    single recipient

    Level 5: Hierarchical pretend/hierarchical
    combinations – an internal plan or
    designation is the basis for the
    pretend act – child or ape engages in
    verbalization, search, or other
    preparation. One object is substituted
    for another with evidence that the
    child or ape is aware of multiple
    meanings being expressed. Child or
    ape constructs imaginary object.
    Child or ape treats inanimate object
    as if it were active or animate. Child
    or ape shows behaviorally that he or
    she actively expects an inanimate
    object to carry out an action with the
    aid of another

    There are examples provided in the paper about each of these, both in humans and primates. Here’s the title of the paper (I realized I never provided it):

    The development of representational play in chimpanzees and bonobos: Evolutionary implications, pretense, and the role of interspecies communication

  2. Sandy G

    Thanks Chris for the description of the levels. I realize these levels fit well with the above speculations.

    Also, thanks for the in-depth information and constant stimulation that you provide via your blog postings.

  3. Pingback: A Parent’s Guide to the Stages of Pretend Play « Music Connections

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