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Study: Joking & Pretending with Toddlers Helps Develop Valuable Skills

Jon Whittle

Break out the gag glasses with the fuzzy mustache! Joking around and pretending with your toddlers helps them build valuable social and life skills, including forming friendships, coping with stress, and solving problems, according to a new research project funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Plus: The Power of Make-Believe

Children who are as young as 14 months can tell the difference between joking and pretending, the study found. Dr. Elena Hoicka, researcher at Stirling University's Baby and Toddler Lab, explained the difference between the two: "Both involve intentionally doing or saying the wrong thing. However, joking is about doing something wrong just for the sake of it. In contrast, pretending is about doing something wrong which is imagined to be right. For example, parents might use a sponge like a duck while pretending but use a cat as a duck when joking."

Plus: How to Tickle Your Child's Funny Bone, Age by Age

The study revealed that parents rely on a host of language styles, sound and non-verbal cues to help their tots understand the difference between joking and pretending. When pretending, a parent might talk slowly and loudly while repeating their actions. On the other hand, a parent might use a more excited tone of voice and express verbal disbelief when telling a joke.

Plus: LOL: Inside the Toddler Mind

"We found that most parents employ these different cues quite naturally to help their toddlers understand and differentiate these concepts," Dr. Hoicka explained. "While not all parents feel confident in their natural abilities, the research does show that making the effort to interact in this way with toddlers is important. Knowing how to joke is great for making friends, dealing with stress, thinking creatively and learning to 'think outside the box'. Pretending helps children learn about the world, interact with others, be creative and solve problems."

Plus: Toddlers and Practical Jokes

What are some of your favorite moments joking or pretending with your little one?