Researchers then gave these toys some unique characteristics. They showed the baby, for example, that the ball was squeaky. Babies who observed the magic ball absorbed this information better than babies who saw the boring old ball hitting the wall. The baby still tended to stare at the ball when the researchers re-presented the ball with a distracting new toy and made a squeak. These same patterns are Dr. Fagenson and Dr. Star has created a modified version of the experiment for children aged 3 to 6 years.
As babies become toddlers, their play becomes more complicated. Instead of just moving the object in space, it begins to make the object believe. Bananas can be telephones and pencils can fly like planes. This tendency to pretend presents a difficult problem. Why do children who are just beginning to understand the real world spend their time creating a new world?
One of the common ideas is that by pretending, children are practicing to decipher the feelings and beliefs of others. However, the alternative hypothesis is that pretending helps the child develop a skill known as counterfactual reasoning.
Adults use this skill to look at events that haven’t happened and what would happen if they happened. For example, what if you grabbed your wallet from your dresser before taking a taxi to the airport? Thinking about the “what if” of the past helps us make better plans for the future.
“This is a very important and very characteristic human ability,” said Dr. Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. That is, children can do that by separating the actual event from the possible events and pretending to be playful. What if I could use this banana to call my grandma? What if this pencil can fly?
To investigate this link between pretending and counterfactual reasoning, Dr. Gopnik and her colleagues presented children aged 3 and 4 with stuffed animals and some special blocks called “Birthday Machines” and “Zandos”. Researchers explained that it was a monkey’s birthday and that they could play “Happy Birthday” with a lantern. To activate the machine, you need to find and place Zand on it. Non-Zandos, she said, don’t let the machine play “Happy Birthday”. The kids then put the blocks on their birthday machine and decided which blocks would play the music and which wouldn’t.
As the children understood the causal relationship, the researchers asked the children a series of hypothetical questions. “What if this block isn’t Zand?” And “What if this block was Zand? What if I put it on a machine?” About two-thirds of the kids answered correctly.