Why Do Kids Pretend to Be Animals? Wellesley Professor Explains

June 26, 2019
A child dressed up as a lion. He laughs.
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In a recent New York Times article, a reader asked the Parenting section for advice about handling a child who was constantly pretending to be a lion.

In response, Tracy Gleason, professor of psychology at Wellesley, told the Times that it is typical for very young children to pretend to be animals, fantasy characters, or adult professionals. “They’re doing a lot of exploring of what it’s like to be someone else, to feel something else, to interact in different ways with other people,” she said. 

Called “theory of mind,” the behavior is also a cognitive developmental task that is key to understanding that “other people have thoughts, and those thoughts can be different from your thoughts,” she told the Times. 

Gleason studies children’s relationships with imaginary companions and the role they play in development as well as how we use our imaginations to help regulate and understand our real relationships, and she often conducts projects with students at the Wellesley College Child Study Center. Here, Gleason dives deeper into pretend play.

When should kids engage in pretend play? 

Tracy Gleason: High-quality early childhood education includes a lot of opportunities for pretend play. Children often use pretense scenarios to explore confusing ideas and experiment with emotions. Social pretend play requires enormous coordination, which means that it affords negotiation, conflict and conflict resolution, and cooperation, not to mention enactment of roles. 

Outside of school, similar opportunities are available with other children, like siblings or neighbors, or with parents, of course. Any time parents have to wait in line with their children is a great chance to pretend you are doing something else.

Are there particular animals that children usually pretend to be? 

Gleason: No, not really; it depends upon the child and the mood. Sometimes children like to enact powerful roles, so they might choose to be bears or lions or anything fierce. Other times children like to be snuggled, so they might opt for anything small and cuddly, like bunnies, mice, or kittens. Sometimes, the important thing is to be active, so a child might choose to be a jumping frog. 

How can adults or caretakers engage with kids who like pretending in ways that are helpful and fun?

Gleason: Adults can follow children’s leads any time a pretend scenario is proposed. They can also expand upon the pretense and negotiate roles with children the same way kids do with each other. Many parents don’t particularly enjoy pretending or have other priorities (e.g., cooking, getting ready for work) when they are with their children, but if they have the time or the inclination, any activity can incorporate some pretense if people want to do that. 

Adults can also introduce pretend scenarios to redirect children’s behavior. Getting dressed in the morning is much more fun if you are doing so in order to go fight a fire in the kitchen than if you are just getting ready for school.

Do we lose the desire to pretend or imagine as we get older? Can adults benefit from channeling some of the aspects of pretend play?

Gleason: I wouldn't say we lose it so much as redirect it. First, we have mounting evidence that children continue to pretend long past the preschool years. The older they get, the more internal and private it might become, but certainly, children pretend together through elementary school. As adolescents and adults, we have myriad ways of engaging with fictional worlds, whether through media or daydreaming. Books, movies, and video games are ways in which adults share their fictional worlds with others. 

Engaging in imagination—separating yourself from the here and now—might also be beneficial. Imagining what the world could be like requires stepping outside of the world as it really is right now. Some evidence connects daydreaming with creativity, for example, and absorption in fiction and the emotions that it evokes gives practice for regulating those emotions when they are real.