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Relationship between Theory of Mind and Pretend Play

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Childcare
Wordcount: 1766 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Relationship between Theory of Mind and Pretend Play


Pretend play is a type of play where children use objects, ideas, or actions to represent other things using their imagination. There are many different types of studies on how pretend play facilitates cognitive development. The question this present paper aims to answer is whether pretend play can contribute to child’s theory of mind and improve their social interaction. 

 Theory of mind is a term that is used to refer to an individual's social understanding about people’s belief, intentions, or desires. This term is important in children's development because it symbolizes a cognitive milestone where the child understands that other people have different beliefs and intentions compared to their own. Alison Gopkin described in her book how children begin to understand this causal connection between other’s desire and belief between ages 2 to 6, which is the same period where children start to have imaginary companions (2009). There are many different studies that explain the development of theory of mind and the types of activities that can enrich theory of mind in children. The study on theory of mind is relevant because it is an important skill to grasp as a child and many researchers are curious about different activities that may facilitate a child’s growth on this skill.  A notable topic that contributes to research on the development of theory of mind in children is pretend play. Many researchers have explored the correlation between pretend play and theory of mind in order to learn more about the cognitive developments in children. The topic of theory of mind is important to the science of imagination because both topics can help guide the way to new discoveries in each field. Theory of mind is a useful tool for scientists to use to measure how children think about others and the world around them. The science of imagination is fascinated in the human’s capacity to think about the past, present, and future. Both topics are able to come together in order to create better understanding of how our minds work. 

Literature Review

Children are not born knowing how others around them are feeling. They develop something called theory of mind as they grow older. According to Lauren Lowry, children develop theory of mind around 4-5 years old (2015). Children fully master theory of mind when they finally learn that different people want different things, have different desires, and have different beliefs (Lowry 2015). This led many researchers to question whether pretend play is in any ways connected to theory of mind. If children can attribute emotions and beliefs to an inanimate object or an imaginary friend, does that also mean they have a developed theory of mind? Many researchers have explored this question for example Marjorie Taylor and Stephanie M. Carlson (1997) were interested in how individual differences of fantasy (pretend play, imaginary companion, etc.) contributed to individual difference of the development of theory of mind. Jennifer M. Jenkins and Janet Wilde Astington (2000) were also interested in the contribution of pretend play and theory of mind but they were more focused on the social development aspect in their study. In their longitudinal study they wanted to know if theory of mind can influence the children’s ability to interact with others by improving their social behavior which in turn improves the quality of their pretend play. Two of these studies are similar because they both explore pretend play and theory of mind. They differ because one explores the relationship of individual differences of fantasy and the development of theory of mind and the other explores how theory of mind can contribute to the quality of pretend play by enriching a children’s social interaction. Both of these studies can be examined together to answer how pretend play can contribute to child’s theory of mind and improve their social interaction. Similarly, it can also give us insight on an alternative hypothesis of how the development of theory of mind is causing children to participate in pretend play. 

Study 1

In the study on child development Marjorie Taylor and Stephanie M. Carlson (1997) explored the relationship between fantasy and theory of mind. They wanted to further explore the relationship between fantasy and theory of mind because they noticed that past studies have only focused on false belief tasks as a measure of theory of mind. In this study Taylor, et al. used 4 different types of measurement to measure child’s theory of mind: appearance and reality, false belief, representational change, and interpretive diversity (1997). The measure of individual differences in pretend play were also extensive in this study. They interviewed both parents and children, observed children in play, and gave laboratory assessment to determine their toy preference. Using data from the interviews and observation in pretend play they were able to give children a composite score and analyze individual differences in pretend play.

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Taylor el al. found that there was a relationship between theory of mind development and pretend play in children (1997). They used the 4 measurement of theory of mind in order to create a composite score to compare with children’s individual differences in fantasy. The results from this study shows a relationship between theory of mind and pretend play but Taylor el al. (1997) does not claim if fantasy play promotes development in theory of mind or if children with already developed theory of mind are more likely to participate in fantasy play. Taylor el al. mention that this is one of the drawbacks to this study and many other studies in this similar topic. They include how their study primarily focused on independent and solitary pretend play based on the questions they asked in their surveys to both parents and children. Although they cannot draw any causal conclusion on their results, they showcased how their results indicate that cooperative play is not the only type of play that can contribute to a children’s understanding about the mind.  

Study 2

Jennifer M. Jenkins and Janet Wilde Astington (2000) were aware of the issue that theory of mind in children may lead to increased pretend play or pretend play lead to the development of theory of mind. Their study was designed to test both hypotheses by testing the relationship between theory of mind and social interaction between children. They proposed that when children grasp the concept of false belief, they are more likely to be explicit with their actions in ambiguous situations and pretend play because they know that their belief are different from others. This leads to joint play and communication between two children (Jenkins et al., 2000). They chose joint planning/playing as being associated to theory of mind because cooperative play/plans involve one’s capability to represent other’s mental state and compare it to their own. 

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In this study, Jenkins et al. performed a longitudinal study with 20 children between 34-45 months old. Children were assessed at 3 different times each about 3 and a half months apart. During these assessments they tested children’s theory of mind with three measures using a false belief task. The children’s general language ability was also tested in order to control for individual differences in language ability. Lastly, children were videotaped while playing with each other in order to analyze pretend and joint play. The researchers coded for amount of pretend play, joint play, and role assignments. Using these data that was recorded, Jenkins et al. performed a multivariate multiple regression test to see whether theory of mind caused affected social behavior or if social behavior affected theory of mind. They test both hypotheses for both and found out that there was stronger statistical support that theory of mind development had an effect on social behavior.




The goal was this paper was to analyze weather pretend play can contribute to child’s theory of mind and improve their social interaction. A major issue that raises from this question is whether pretend play affects theory of mind or whether a child’s developed theory of mind increases their quality of pretend play. There was great evidence for how pretend play is likely to affect theory of mind than the alternative. But there is more research that is needed to be done in order to make the hypothesis more convincing. In the second study mentioned Jenkins et al. (2000) had a great experimental design that analyzed both hypotheses. The limitation that arise was from their measure of theory of mind. They only used the false belief task which was mentioned by Taylor el al. (1997) to be a limitation to many of the pretend play and theory of mind studies. There are currently not a lot of studies that has been done on this topic. There is still a possibility that there is a 3rd variable that is responsible for the relationship between theory of mind and pretend play. Overall, based on current studies there seems to be a clear relationship between theory of mind and pretend play, but future research is needed in order to determine the causal effects of both.


  • Gopnik, Alison. The philosophical baby: What children's minds tell us about truth, love & the meaning of life. Random House, 2009.
  • Jenkins, J. M., & Astington, J. W. (2000). Theory of mind and social behavior: Causal models tested in a longitudinal study. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly (1982-), 203-220.
  • Lowry, L. (2015). Tuning In" to Others: How Young Children Develop Theory of Mind.
  • Taylor, M., & Carlson, S. M. (1997). The relation between individual differences in fantasy and theory of mind. Child development68(3), 436-455.



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