Most 3-year-olds understand the difference between pretending to perform an act and actually trying to perform it, according to a study published this month in APA's Developmental Psychology (Vol. 40, No. 3).
In the study, psychologist Hannes Rakoczy, PhD, and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, challenged previous research suggesting children at that age couldn't discern between pretending and trying by individually testing 18 3-year-olds with nonverbal measures. The researchers assessed the children's ability to distinguish actually eating an orange and a nut and pouring water from pretending to perform those activities.
Each child watched as a researcher declared his actions and performed two pretense models and two trying models. For example, the researcher said "I am going to eat the orange now" and then tried (unsuccessfully) to eat the orange--by biting the fruit lightly with the peel still on it. Then, he pretended to eat the nut.
Next, he both tried and pretended to pour water from a closed container into a cup. The researcher acted frustrated during the trying model by looking angrily at the sealed container when no water poured out and acted playful during the pretense model, making sound effects as if pouring.
After each modeling by the researcher, the child could perform the same acts, which the researchers coded as "pretense" or "trying" and further differentiated into "simple" (basic mimicking) or "inferential" (going beyond the researcher's actions) for all conditions. The researchers provided three items children could use to facilitate actions: a teddy bear children could pretend to feed, a bowl and fork to pretend to eat or feed the bear, and plastic pliers to open containers or cut food.
The results indicate most children understand the difference between when someone pretends or intends to seriously perform an action. During the trying conditions, most children showed innovative, unprompted problem-solving skills, such as using the pliers to crack the nut, or suggested solutions to the exasperated researchers ("You have to open the container first."). In pretense conditions, children used new, imaginative make-believe ideas, such as putting the orange to the bear's mouth and making chewing noises. Few misinterpreted a researcher's pretending for trying, and vice-versa.
That children expanded on the researchers' actions in thematic, logical ways is significant, Rakoczy says, because it eliminates the possibility that children simply mimicked experimenters' actions.
"Children make use of novel means and perform pretend actions that appropriately follow from the model," he says. "Children really do understand the intentional structure of pretending."