Pretense and Acquiring General Knowledge

May 5, 2010

On April 28, the Cognitive Development Center (CDC) organized a public lecture by Ori Friedman, Assistant Professor, Developmental Psychology, University of Waterloo, Canada.  Ori Friedman began his talk by discussing two puzzles important to cognitive development. Puzzle one: how do children acquire general knowledge, aside from direct observation? In our modern society, children have many avenues from which they can learn enduring, generalizable information, but in a time before television, children’s books, and pictorial media, how did children learn facts about the world? Puzzle two: children spontaneously engage in pretend play at a very young age, an activity that engages others socially. But why do they playfully and intentionally misrepresent the true state of affairs at a time when it is in their best interests to learn about the world as it truly is? He proposed that the answers to these two questions might be linked. Perhaps, rather than explicitly teaching facts about the world, parents and caretakers introduce general information to their children through pretend play.

A series of studies, conducted with undergraduate student Shelbie Sutherland (undergraduate student, Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, Canada), investigated whether children could learn facts about natural kinds that were introduced through pretend play. Although learning was never explicitly prompted in these studies, children were able to learn and generalize facts about previously unknown and absent referents. By contrast, they did not generalize these facts to referents that were not involved in the pretend play.

Friedman concluded his talk by discussing prevailing theories of pretense in children, and specifically critiqued theories that posit that “pretend” is a mental state on par with “believe” or “think”. Mental states such as “believe” or “think” do not require those who engage in them to act in a particular way. However, “pretend” requires communication, (as an example, exaggerated behaviors) to indicate that someone is pretending. Instead, he proposed that pretense is an ostensive-referential action in which children expect to learn generalizable information with more applications than the here and now.


The research of Ori Friedman investigates the developmental origins of concepts underlying abstract social reasoning. One line of research investigates children's reasoning about beliefs and desires; a second line investigates children's ability to engage in and recognize pretend play; and a third line investigates children's and adults' reasoning about ownership of property. Friedman also works at the University of Waterloo Child Cognition Lab.