Parents who joke and pretend with their toddlers are doing more than just play, they're teaching them important life skills, researchers from the University of Sheffield report in a new study in Cognitive Science. In fact kids as young as 16 months use cues from their parents to pick up differences between joking and pretending. "Knowing how to joke is good for maintaining relationships, thinking outside the box, and enjoying life," researcher Elena Hoicka says in a press release. "Pretending helps children to practice new skills and learn new information. So while parents may feel a bit daft putting a toy chicken on their head, they can at least console themselves with the knowledge that they are helping their children develop important skills for life."
To study this, the researchers watched one set of parents joke and pretend with their 16- to 20-month-olds using actions, and another set joke and pretend with their 20- to 24-month-olds verbally. In the former, jokes included misusing items (think toy chicken on head) while pretend play included washing hands without water or soap. In the latter, jokes included mismatching items (ie, calling a toy chicken a hat) and pretend play included telling kids a round block was a horse. In both cases, parents exhibited more disbelief and less belief when joking than when pretending, and the younger kids responded by showing less belief in their actions, while the older kids showed less belief through their language. As Hoicka puts it, "Parents who pretend and joke with their children offer cues to distinguish the difference between the two and toddlers take advantage of these cues to perform." The researchers plan to widen the scope of their study to kids from birth through age 3. (Here's why you shouldn't hand your toddler a tablet.)