Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Considering Counterfactuals: The Relationship between Causal Learning and Pretend Play

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Considering Counterfactuals: The Relationship between Causal Learning and Pretend Play

Article excerpt

Many researchers have long assumed imaginative play critical to the healthy cognitive, social, and emotional development of children, which has important implications for early-education policy and practice. But, the authors find, a careful review of the existing literature highlights a need for a better theory to clarify the nature of the relationship between pretend play and childhood development. In particular, they ask why children spend so much time engaging in unreal scenarios at a time when they know relatively little about the real world? The authors review the idea that children pretend because it exercises their developing ability to reason counter-factually-an ability essential for causal reasoning and learning. The authors present a look at their study in progress aimed at assessing their theory. According to the model of play they outline, imaginative play serves as an engine of learning. Such play arises out of the human capacity for causal cognition and feeds back to help develop causal-reasoning skills. Keywords: Bayesian learning methods; causal learning; counterfactual reasoning; pretend play; probabilistic models

Across species, the activities typically involved in play are those that will become important in adulthood (Bekoff and Byers 1998). Play, then, is a type of exploratory learning in which the young animal engages in a variety of behaviors in a low-risk, low-cost context. Over the last ten years or so, a growing body of research has focused on a unique form of exploratory play in human chil- dren involving a process of informal experimentation on the world. This work demonstrates that children's early exploration of the external world during free play helps them learn the complexities of causal relationships (e.g., see Schulz [2012] for a review).

However, human children also engage in a particularly distinctive kind of internal exploratory play-pretend play. During pretense, children not only play with objects and social partners in the actual world, they also construct (sometimes rather elaborate) unreal scenarios about possible worlds. The ideas we address in this article relate to a long-standing question in developmental psychology about the apparently paradoxical nature of this type of pretend play: Why do young children spend so much of their time and resources on unreality, given that they are still learning about the real world?

Classically, researchers (Freud 1922; Piaget 1962) offered a rather unchari- table characterization of pretend play-attributing its prevalence in childhood to children's inability to differentiate between fantasy and reality. However, decades of research have shown that, to the contrary, children seem quite proficient at distinguishing between the two (Flavell, Flavell, and Green 1987; Morison and Gardner 1978; Skolnick and Bloom 2006; Taylor 1999; Walton 1990; Woolley and Cox 2007; Woolley and Ghossainy 2013). Many of these early deflationary theories of pretense in childhood also ignored some of the most prominent features of pretend play, features that suggest it is the result of cognitive compe- tence rather than cognitive limitations. Pretense is unique to human beings; it is often social in nature; and it becomes increasingly elaborate over the course of early childhood (Harris 2000). Indeed, one of the more compelling features of pretend play is its continuity throughout the lifespan: adults spend large por- tions of their lives engaged with fictional worlds.

No wonder that developmental psychologists and educators have long sus- pected pretend play contributes to learning. Historically however, there have been surprisingly few empirical studies that provide strong support for this idea (see Lil- lard et al. 2013 for a recent review). We have argued elsewhere (Walker and Gopnik 2013a) that the lack of a unifying theory of pretend play has been detrimental to its empirical study because a coherent theory serves to generate a set of testable predictions to guide the direction of research. …

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