Dr Edith K. Ackermann, professor in developmental psychology and one of the three readers for my PhD general exams -contextual area: psychology- recommended me a book that I am currently reading:
The Work of the Imagination by Paul H. Harris. The author demonstrates how children’s imagination makes a continuing contribution to their cognitive and emotional development. This book is fundamental in synthesizing the research done on children’s imagination and development.
Paul L. Harris is Professor of Developmental Psychology, Oxford University, and Fellow in Psychology, St. John’s College, Oxford. He is the author of Children and Emotion, and co-editor of Developing Theories of Mind, Children’s Understanding of Emotion, and Imagining the Impossible: Magical, Scientific and Religious Thinking in Children.
This entry will be a repository of my notes on the book, as summaries chapter after chapter.
The author reminds us on the human radical evolution 40 000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolitic era. The observation was made that even if we could not analyze the brain modification, we noticed a radical change in what humans did with their hands between the Upper Paleolitic era in contrast with the Neanderthal era. These created artifacts testify a cognitive change, a change in temporal organization and planning. The artifacts resemble children’s props for make believe, helping participants to be transported out of reality into some imagined settings.
Chapter 1. Bleuler in Weimar
In 1911, Bleuler distinguishes two modes of thinking: logical or realistic thinking and autistic thinking.
For Bleuler, autistic thinking is not a pathology confined in a group of children, children who exhibit a withdrawal from other people and the external world (as in Kanner, 1943). For Bleuler autistic thinking is a normal mode of thinking in both children and adults. It is evident in dreams, pretend play and reveries and in the fantasies and delusions of the schizophrenic. It is a mode of thought dominated by free association and wishful thinking. In logical and realistic thinking, affective and emotional considerations are tempered by what is recognized as faisible. Then sometimes autistic thinking override logical thinking in normal adults. In Bleuler, at the difference of Freud, the ability to conceive of alternatives to reality is not a primitive process but something relatively sophisticated. For Bleuler, reality-directed thinking comes first and autistic thinking comes later.
For Piaget, autistic thinking is suppressed with the development of logic and the child becomes more rational and objective. Children early on speak from their inner world and this is not yet adjusted to the external world, to the need of their listener. Vygotsky tried to analyze and compare Bleuler and Piaget’s theories and explained that a child learns to make a clean separation between speech for communicating and speech for the service of thinking. It does not mean that autistic thinking is egocentric speech referred by Piaget.
For Piaget, pretend play is an opportunity for the child to secure via fantasy what is not available in reality. “For example he describes how his daughter Jacqueline, having been told that she could not play with the water that was to be used for the washing, took an empty cup, went to the forbidden tub of water, and made pretend movements saying, ‘I’m pouring out water’.” For Piaget, pretend play is a temporary phase of maladaptation.
The author of the book criticizes Piaget in thinking pretend play is a primary mode of thinking nor will it be supressed in the course of development. 1- Pretend play only appears with the 2nd year of life 2-Great apes only do sporadic pretend play so pretend play is only a function of human childhood 3- Pathology studies show that the absence of early imagination is pathological. One syndrome in early childhood autism is the abscence or impoverishment in pretend play.
When children are in pretend play, they draw casual understanding of the physical and mental world. Also adults are absorbed in novels and films… Children’s ability to entertain counterfactual alternatives to an actual outcome is critical for making casual and more judgments about that outcome. So Bleuler’s autistic thinking remains a constant companion to reality based thinking.
Chapter 2. Pretend Play
Pretend Play allows children to offer a way to imagine, explore and talk about possibilities inherent in reality. Piaget, in Play, Dreams and Imitation (1962) describes how in 2nd year children’s pretend play becomes more elaborate (sustained and complex series of pretended actions) and flexible (less dependent on the support). Even though Piaget acknowledges the developmental process of the child through pretend play, he still sees it as negative and destine to give way eventually to logic and rationality. The author argues that this is especially wrong for joined pretense when two children share and communicate on a common make believe object. In joined pretense, the child gives cues of the shared pretense to the partner. For instance, if a cardboard becomes a tap, the gesture of opening water from the tap creates a shared understanding. These pretend objects also have casual power: they can deliver water! The perspective is situated within the pretense framework.
Pretend episodes include casual chains with an unfolding structure much like a narrative, all understood by a 2 years old! It is the same cognitive work as we do in a literal mode. Through studies the author found that for two years old, once a prop has been assigned a make believe identity by a play partner, children produce pretend actions towards the prop. He also found that 2 years old understand the casual power associated with a stipulated entity and use that casual knowledge to use out the consequences of a pretend transformation in their imagination.
The author wanted to know if children will use the objective truth (what is actually there) or the make believe truth in describing a pretend object. In the study, children selected mainly the imaginary outcome, as opposed to objective ones. They used the references used to construct the imaginary world.
Pretend play can incorporate casual chains. Casual chains in which an initial event enables conditions for a next are understood by 2 years old children. For this children need toenvision the outcome of an initial action, for instance, I turn the tap to get water, because of the water the Teddy bear will get wet, and then I need to dry the Teddy bear with a towel! The author’ study showed that two years old can sustain a casual chain in their imagination and describe its outcome.
The author proposes that 2 years old understand some of the essential ingredients in drama and fiction. They recognize that events occur in a make believe framework and not in the real world. This is very different than Piaget who states that pretend play is a representation of reality, that what is being signified is reality itself. However the act of pretense is not to signify. It is only inspired by reality. Children are like novelists, they are inspired by actual events and everyday routines, all material for their imagination. Pretend play or make believe is also different than re-enacting a particular action carried earlier. The author claims that children do possess a genuine imagination while Piaget would see it as a subjective assimilation of reality. When a child would pretend being half a dog-half a bird crawling on the floor, Piaget explained that it cannot be seen as part of children’s imagination but a distortion of the real world. On the other end, the authors claims it is truly imaginative as much as novelist are inspired by reality to create fiction. The author concludes that pretend play is the first indication of a lifelong mental capacity to consider alternatives to reality.
Chapter 3. Role Play
Children incorporate animated being into their pretend play. The author examines children’s ability to imagine and act out the role of a person or creature. This role playing happens with friends, a key form of interaction between friends. Successful cooperation in this type of play calls for considerable sensibility and flexibility. In all cases of pretend play, the child uses or not a prop and uses or not herself as a prop. In role play, a sub category of pretend play, children temporarily immerse themselves in the part they create. They talk from the point of view of the creature, taking the mood and tone of voice that is appropriate, give expression to the emotions, sensations and needs for the adopted role. When children engage in role play, they do not simply remain off stage, directors or puppeteers, they enter into the make believe situation they create and adopt the point of view of one of the protagonist within it.
At 2-3 years old, children can invoke a creature, an imaginary person that becomes a companion for the child, this without the need of prop.
An invisible character, named and referred to in conversation with other persons or played with directly for a period of time, at least several months, having an air of reality for the child, but no apparent objective basis -Svendsen (1934)
Marjorie Taylor (1998) reports that 2/3 of a sample of American children had either an imaginary companion or one projected onto an external prop before age 7. There is no evidence of difference in personality or behavior between children with imaginary companions and children without. However there is an intriguing difference. Children with imaginary companions proved to be more skilled in assessing how people might feel.
For instance, at 24 months BT pretended he was a kitten after having visited his grand mother who had a kitten. Until 36 months he was “meowing” and licking milk. At 30 months his best friend was a dog, an additional role of his.
When a child plays out a particular character, she needs to have a set of meta-theories: theories about the theories that the character holds. Children reproduce routine aspects of human mentation in any character they enact by recruiting their own knowledge base. Studies show however that children do not understand that pretense initially depends on a well informed representation of what is being pretended. With pretend play, children can notice the gap between representation of reality and reality itself, therefore it will facilitate their understanding of mental states. All pretend play involves mental representation so it is helpful for understanding mental states, however only pretend play with animated objects (versus an airplane for instance) correlate with good performance on belief tasks. The absence of mental states at 18 months is associated with a late diagnostic of autism (Baron-Cohen et al, 1996); autistic children perform poorly on false belief tasks compared to normal or retarded children.
It is then role play rather than pretend play that facilitates mental states understanding and autistic children are especially limited in role play. Children who engage into role playing have a predisposition to better be able to view a situation from another person’s point of view. What happened as children get older? When enacting a role, children imagine the world from the point of view of another person. We do the same when we reada biography, an historical novel. We locate ourselves inside the world of the novel rather than the real world and we share the same spatial and temporal framework than the protagonist.