Does Theory of Mind Emerge in Pretend Play?

(This is the final paper for the class that I have been writing all these journal entries for. It’s probably a little spotty, and I’m not really proud of it, but I think it hits the highlights in the literature)

At Bing, children as young as 3 regularly engage in pretend play, and the school’s philosophy and design encourage it. In west room, a kitchen area lies in the middle of the classroom with toy babies, costumes, and various utensils. Outside, playhouses are equipped with pots and pans, sinks, and brooms where, on most days, children will be outside making mud pies out of sand and water. Sometimes they play alone, but often they’ll play with other children, requiring coordination and maintenance of their play. In their pretend play, children pretend to be in fictional worlds and act out events. They might think of themselves as airplanes, use sand as flour in cooking, or play as a family with parents and a baby. Through play, children may engage in social negotiation, work through emotional problems, reason through complex situations, and more. One particular skill related to pretend play is theory of mind.

Theory of mind is the ability to impute mental states to the self and others (Premack & Woodruff 1978). Consequently, reality alone doesn’t determine one’s mental state, and different people may have different representations of the world. Previous research suggests that children don’t establish this skill until they are 4 or 5, yet children in engage in pretend play as young as 3. Children may pretend that a stick is a gun, which requires a conception of an object than one determined strictly by reality. In play with others, children interact with the imagined worlds that others have in mind. Pretend play seems to require skills similar to theory of mind, yet their development doesn’t occur simultaneously.

Although some argue that children have already developed theory of mind before engaging in pretend play, others argue that children only exhibit a primitive version of theory of mind in pretend play. Bing’s philosophy of play as learning believes that pretend play allows children to practice and learn about theory of mind. In this paper, I will explore some of the issues and competing theories in how pretend play and theory of mind are related and the evidence for these claims.

Experimental paradigms for theory of mind

Before discussing the competing theories, I want to give an overview of common methods of testing children for theory of mind and point out some of characteristics of these tests.

First, the appearance-reality task tests whether children can distinguish between the appearance and true nature of an object. For example, a child is presented with an object that looks like a rock. After the child states that it’s a rock, he or she then learn that it is actually a sponge. Studies have found that children younger than 4 ½ would respond to the question, “What does it look like?” with sponge more often than rock. This result seems to show that young children can’t maintain distinct mental models for the true identity of an objects and its apparent appearance.

A more recent study by Hansen and Markman (2005), however, discovered that this result came from task demands. Children often have difficulty understanding and remembering details in experiments, and in this case, questions about what an object “looks like” can be understood as a reference to reality as well. After correcting for these difficulties, they found that children as young as 3 could distinguish between appearance and reality. Thus, by this measure, children demonstrate theory of mind by the time they are engaging in pretend play as well.

Second, the false belief task tests whether children can maintain a counterfactual state of the world. For example, a child is presented with a Band-Aid box. After the child states a belief that there are Band-Aids inside, the experimenter shows that crayons are in the box. When 3 year old children are asked, they report that their mother would know that there are crayons inside. This result seems to show that the 3 year olds don’t understand that others can have a mental model of the world that’s inconsistent with reality.

Third, the interpretive diversity task is related to the previous task. The same child is also asked what he or she thought was in the box before, and these same children will fail and say that they thought crayons were in the box. This result seems to show that they can’t reconcile their previous mental state with the facts of reality and revise their memory for one consistent interpretation.

These particular tests don’t necessarily measure the same type of theory of mind that we see exhibited in pretend play. Even so, several of the following studies discussed will use and build upon these tests.

Do children see pretend play as theory of mind?

In the introduction, I noted the similarities in the characteristics of pretend play and theory of mind. Even so, the standard measures above indicate that 3 year olds haven’t developed theory of mind yet. A possible explanation may be that children don’t treat their pretend play as having emerged from mental states.

A key factor of theory of mind is that a person must understand that his or her actions come from a mental state. One interpretation is that pretend play gives children practice with these mental representations, which Lillard (2001) calls the Metarepresentational Model of Pretense. A common method of testing understanding of pretense is to describe an actor with contradictory mental states and actions, then ask the child which corresponds to the actor’s pretense. Lillard considered the role of knowledge in pretend play with several experiments. In one, a child watched a doll jumping up and down like a rabbit but was told that the doll knew nothing about rabbits. When asked if the doll was pretending to be a rabbit, 4 and 5 year olds correctly said no, while 3 year olds said yes. This suggests that 3 year olds don’t treat pretense as a product of a mental state. Instead, their interpretation from reality alone fails to account for this ignorance on the part of others.

However, other studies have disputed this and similar claims, mainly on the difficulties of task demands. Some concerns are that the relative saliences of the mental and real states aren’t balanced, and that the wording of the questions has some bias. Custer (1996) responded to the above study by changing the paradigm by presenting the pretense and asking about the mental state (instead of presenting the mental state and asking about the pretense). For example, a child was shown a boy pretending to fish with a boot, then asked whether there was a boot or a fish on the end of his hook in his mental state. The results showed that 3 year olds did better on this pretend task than they did on a corresponding false belief task. Given that, children show more advanced understanding of the mental nature of pretense than they can on typical theory of mind tasks.

Lillard (2001) pointed out that this result may only demonstrate that children are aware that pretense and reality are different; knowing that, they simply pick the alternative, which happens to be the mental state. Instead, she proposed the Twin Earth model of pretend play, where children are in an imagined world similar to, but not precisely the same as, the real world. In this theory, children haven’t necessarily developed a mental representation of the world of their play and only realize that their pretense is something other than reality.

This debate about whether children actively use mental representations in pretend play (and are simultaneously developing theory of mind) continues as no study has conclusively argued in either direction. Common difficulties with these studies are the numerous other interpretations of children’s behavior and other possible cues that may lead to it. Even so, further research should work towards where causality lies between pretend play and theory of mind.

How does pretend play correlate with theory of mind?

Even if we can’t explicitly link theory of mind to pretend play, we can try to find correlations between them. Taylor and Carlson (97) correlated theory of mind and pretend play in a study of 152 children, 3 and 4 years old. For theory of mind, each child was measured on false belief, appearance-reality, representational change, and interpretive diversity tasks. For their level of pretense, each child and their parents were interviewed on the presence of imaginary preferences, and each child was tested for preferences in toys. From these measures, children were grouped into high and low fantasy groups, which roughly described their engagement in fantasy in play.

They found that high fantasy correlated significantly with ability on theory of mind tasks for the 4 year olds, but they didn’t find any such effect in 3 year olds. One explanation offered by the authors is that the measures used weren’t appropriate for 3 year olds, a common difficulty discussed earlier. Still, I noticed other issues with this study. One is that the measures for pretend play were indirect: instead of an ecologically valid method, such as observing children in a classroom, the preferences were determined in experiment rooms without actual play. A second issue is that children were tested individually, which avoids any social factors in play. Even so, the correlation in 4 year olds is significant and suggests that these abilities aren’t entirely disparate.

Given how broad the types of pretend play are, we can better understand the importance of pretend play in theory of mind by considering specific aspects of play. One particular factor is how children play together. To construct a fictional world with others, children must form some idea in the minds of others, and working flexibly with those representations helps to perpetuate play. For example, I once observed Cyrus and Jackson in a tree playing “clones.” Although they were fighting other children, Cyrus also found “clone berries” that he had picked off the tree, giving them to Jackson and me to eat. In the middle of our meal, however, several children came nearby, and instantly, Cyrus used the “clone berries” as “clone grenades,” and Jackson immediately understood and began throwing them as well. When Olivia came and wanted to join their play, Cyrus made her a princess and assigned her the role of collecting the very same “clone berries” that he was using as grenades. At this moment, Cyrus wasn’t simply pretending the berries to be something else; he was actively maintaining 2 different fictional identities of the berries for 2 different people who each construed them to be different things.

A study by Schwebel, Rosen, and Singer (99) considered the social factor specifically in how pretend play might lead to development of theory of mind. Although most of the discussion above focused upon the role of mental representation in pretend play, this study focused on the difference between social and solitary pretend play. They observed 85 preschoolers, coding and rating their ability in play. They then tested them on the appearance-reality task. They found that, even after controlling for verbal intelligence, social play correlated positively with performance on the appearance-reality task. We discussed the limitations of the appearance-reality task above, but controlling for verbal intelligence helps to mitigate: better verbal intelligence should have accounted for difficulty in understanding the task demands.

The first result that solitary play didn’t correlate with theory of mind suggests that simply construing objects as something different than reality doesn’t effectively indicate any awareness of mental states. Though this theory alone isn’t surprising, it’s interesting that this came from the appearance-reality task as the measure for theory of mind. The result from social play, however, is more encouraging, and it places special importance on this type of play. Overall, this study suggests that specific properties of pretend play are more useful than others in developing theory of mind, and pinpointing those may help us understand what this relationship is.


We have discussed some of the competing theories and evidence to understand how theory of mind and pretend play might be related. Pretend play seems to show some of these skills in understanding the mental representations of others, and although correlations between these have been found, the direction of causality still isn’t known. We hope that pretend play encourages children to learn theory of mind, but it’s also possible that theory of mind is a prerequisite for pretend play, and studies so far simply haven’t tested children in the correct manner. In spite of this uncertainty, pretend play offers the most complete experience children receive in flexibly using these skills, and the earlier emergence of theory of mind-like abilities in pretend play can help us understand how it develops.


Custer, W. L. (1996). A Comparison of Young Children’s Understanding of Contradictory Representations in Pretense, Memory, and Belief. Child Development, 67 (2), 678-688.

Hansen, M. B., & Markman, E. M. (2005). Appearance questions can be misleading: A discourse-based account of the appearance-reality problem. Cognitive Psychology, 50, 233-263.

Lillard, A. (2001). Pretend Play as Twin Earth: A Social-Cognitive Analysis. Developmental Review, 21, 495-531.

Premack, D. & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behaviour & Brain Sciences, 4, 515–526.

Schwebel, D. C., Rosen, C. S., & Singer, J. L. (1999). Preschoolers’ pretend play and theory of mind: The role of jointly constructed pretence. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 17, 333-348.

Taylor, M., & Carlson, S. M. (1997). The Relation between Individual Differences in Fantasy and Theory of Mind. Child Development, 68(3), 436-455.

2 thoughts on “Does Theory of Mind Emerge in Pretend Play?”

  1. There are over a dozen correlational studies relating theory of mind to pretend play. The evidence is very mixed and in my opinion suggests that pretend play may have a facilitative but not essential role in pretend play development – see also my book Chhildren and Play, Wiley-Blackwell 2010.

  2. Thanks for the reference, Peter. I had noticed that the evidence, and thus the opinions, weren’t very conclusive, though I certainly don’t understand the field well enough to really have good thoughts on my own.

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