Live chat with developmental psychologist Elena Hoicka

I’m pleased to bring you the write-up from our 17th live chat with developmental psychologist Elena Hoicka. Elena is a lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Sheffield and her expertise is on joking, pretending, creativity, and deception in babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Hers is a truly fascinating AND fun job as it involved exploring the relationship between play/joking and pretending/deceiving, something that all kids seem to really enjoy, no matter what culture or country they may come from. So read below our questions to Elena and her insightful answers, plus a couple of ideas for fun experiments you can do on your toddler!
Q: What interests you about joking and pretending?
Elena: Joking and pretending are great to research. First of all, because they are fun. I used to work next to a lab that looked at stress in kids, and while important research, I wouldn’t want to make kids cry! Also, joking and pretending require some really impressive thinking and social skills. Finally, there’s not much research on joking even though kids do it all the time, and it’s great to learn new things.

Q: Can you explain more about the social skills involved? I guess it’s one of those things that seems a lot simpler than it is.
Elena: To get a joke, you have to read other people’s minds a bit because you need to know they didn’t mean to be serious. To be a successful joker, you also have to read your audience, and let them know that you’re not being serious either, otherwise jokes fail.

Q: When do kids normally start pretending? My little girl has just started obviously doing it and it’s cute (in my opinion! )
Elena: To date, research suggests pretending can start as early as 15-18 months, which involves kids doing almost real actions, like pretending to drink from an empty tea cup.  But it’s possible they are pretending in other ways even earlier – like pretending to sleep or cry. We ran a survey last month at to find out if that kind of pretending happens too. How old is your daughter, and what pretending did she do?
She’s 21 months but she’s been doing it for a few weeks. The first thing I noticed was she was pretending to wash me. She also puts things in a bag and pretends to go somewhere.
Elena: Those are great examples!

Q: Oh yeah she also pretends to drink from pretend cups. I guess that’s quite common. Is there any need to encourage pretending? Will they just do it anyway?
Elena: Good question. Apparently even in culture where pretending is discouraged, kids will do it anyway, but to a lesser extent than in other cultures. However a recent study (I think it was with Japanese parents and kids) found that parents who support their kids’ understanding of pretending more end up with kids who better understand pretending later on. So it’s a bit of both.

Q: I was reading something about child development the other day which said that children don’t understand that other people can have ‘false beliefs’ until they are about 3. But pretending starts earlier than that. Surely there is some ‘false belief’ type thinking that has to be understood there?
Elena: False belief actually isn’t understand until around 4.5 years! But it’s a very specific type of “theory of mind”. To get false belief you need to know that someone else believes something that isn’t true – so you have to be able to think about the contents of their minds.

Q: Sorry, my thoughts on this are a bit confused. But I mean, to pretend something, you are consciously aware that people can have two different ideas in their heads.
Elena: Yep – you’re right. However pretending doesn’t have these full demands. To pretend, you need to understand something about representation and imagination – that your tea is just pretend, but in your imagination it’s also real. But you don’t need to think about other people’s beliefs to do that. Some research suggests that pretending can be a basis for false belief because it allows kids to practice thinking about two states at the same time e.g., real/imaginary vs. real/believed. You’re not confused – people often peg all of theory of mind on the false belief task, but kids understand intentions from around a year, and desires a bit after that, so it’s something that builds and builds.

Q: My son’s first pretending that I noticed was pretending to go to sleep – he is smiling the whole time and kind of looking at us out of the corner of his eye. It seems like he is looking for our reaction and inviting us to share the joke.
Elena: really interesting to hear – that’s a new type of pretending that has been overlooked and I’m fascinated to know if it’s typical or not. I think it also shows there can be blurred lines between joking and pretending.

Q: Today he still loves to pretend to sleep, but now he also likes to crawl under the rug in my parents’ house and pretend it’s a duvet and make exaggerated snoring noises.
Elena: It sounds like he’s added props now, but what I like about it is that it’s a type pretending you could do without knowing how objects work- just how you work! We are now running a survey on deception in 0-47 month olds at Are any of your kids trying to do sneaky things yet?

Q: Yes, my son is 3 and going through a real sneaky stage, like cuddling his 1 year old sister before pulling her over.
Elena: how does your daughter respond to that?
She starts off smiley then generally screams at him
Elena: Do you think your daughter is picking up how to be sneaky too, or is she still too young?
She could be because she’s also learnt that she will get a response from us if she screams. Generally her brother will be told off for hurting her, so she screams when she doesn’t really need to, just to get a response.
Elena: Really interesting, sounds related to deception/pretending or might be it.

Q: What prompts kids to start pretending?
Elena: Good question. I guess they often think it’s fun, but why that would be fun I don’t know. Kids like to practice things in the real world, especially if adults do it, so it might give them a feeling of mastery of e.g., being able to “go out” with their purse. If people find it entertaining (e.g., snoring) they might like the response they get too. Vasu Reddy found that babies will often repeat actions if people laugh, so there’s certainly a social/emotional component to some of this.

Q: Recently my son’s pretending seems to have really taken off – pretending to drink imaginary tea, pretending to be a tiger, etc. Is that because it’s a new skill he is trying out, or did he do it earlier but we just didn’t realise when he was less verbal?
Elena: It would make sense it would take off now- kids’ pretending starts in the second year of life and gets more and more complex, so at some point they start using one object as another (e.g., banana as a phone), but that actually takes a while to get to. It might be that they need to develop the right cognitive skills (i.e., two ideas at the same time) before they can start, and then they’re off. It probably is easier to spot when they can talk more, because if they put a brick to their mouth, you might think they’re just exploring, but if they say they are drinking you know they are pretending.

Q: I’m quite interested in joke telling. My niece went through a stage of making up jokes that weren’t funny/didn’t make sense but she laughed at. Also my entire family still tease me about a joke I made up as a child and told all the time which didn’t make sense. Do all kids do this? Is it because they don’t quite get the rules of a joke? (Like a knock knock joke)
Elena: I think this is so common in kids around 4 or so (anecdotally- I don’t have research to back this up). I think kids partly get the structure of a joke (e.g., you say “knock knock” etc), but they don’t really understand puns until they’re around 7, so they often mess up the punch line and go with nonsense instead, which they love!

Q: So are there ‘developmental stages’ of pretending and joking that kids go through?
Elena: There does seem to be developmental stages of pretending – starting with using objects for their real use (pretending to drink from cup) around 15-18 months, then using one object as another (e.g., block as cup) around 2 years, getting into more complicated substitutions, then fantasy play around 3/4 years. But I think everything’s a bit hodgepodge, and missing bits of pretending, which is why we ran a pretending survey last month from 0-47 months to get a better understanding. I found through parent reports in a past study that kids do peekaboo in the first year, then silly actions (e.g., pulling faces) and tickling/chasing in their second year, then lots of misusing objects (shoe on hand) saying silly words etc at 2 years. But there’s lots of differences between kids and I’m not sure if we can say it’s “stages” rather than averages. That’s why we ran a humour survey too a couple months ago!

Q: My son is 28 months and has toy trains. His dad has a model train that he’s not supposed to touch, so yesterday he got the model one down and replaced it with his. Is he likely to be pretending that his is the model one, or just hoping I wouldn’t notice?
Elena: That’s a hard question! It could go either way. Again, my guess would be that if he was pretending he might give cues to let you know, e.g., smiling, eye contact, etc, whereas if he was being deceptive he might try to keep it quiet, and make sure you don’t see it.
Haha deceptive then! He just quietly took the other and started playing with it (then ruined it by talking to himself, saying “this train is too delicate and I shouldn’t be playing with it”). I didn’t stop him because I wanted to see what he’d do, and I was a bit proud. He’d put it in the same place, engine at the same end and carriages facing the right way, and everything. And he is not allowed to touch that train, so obviously he wants it.
Elena: Haha, that is very clever! And you can be proud because it shows great cognitive skills, like planning/problem solving (just ignore the morality part). Kids are really bad at covering up their lies and most kids will give away key information until they are at least 4. Tracy Alloway and I found that it’s partly to do with how good their working memory is and other research found it has to do with theory of mind.

Q: Interesting, tell us more about the working memory please.
Elena: We gave 6 and 7 year olds a quiz where if they got 3 questions right they got a prize. The first two were easy, e.g., what colour is a banana, but the third one was a trick question – What’s the name of the boy in the cartoon spaceboy? (no such cartoon exists). We left the room and said not to peek at the answer on the back of the card, while a hidden camera filmed them. Then we asked if they peeked, and asked a follow-up question – What random picture do you think is on the back of the card (it was a monkey). The kids who had done really well on a working memory test (reciting back lots of letters, e.g., xlsyi) were the ones who came up with answers like “boat”, but the ones who couldn’t remember as well blurted out “monkey” which gave away the peek/lie. It makes sense because to maintain a lie you have to remember lots of info – all the truth plus all the falsehoods you’ve created.

The conversation then moved to a discussion around those parents who think their 2 year old kids “have got to learn something”, without perhaps appreciating the complexities of learning and how alternative types of learning happen at different developmental stages.
Q: My brother corrects my niece’s language (e.g., she says ‘I swimmed yesterday’ and he says ‘I swam yesterday!’) and he says ‘she needs to learn it’. I am fed up of explaining that is not how kids learn.
Elena: “Swimmed” actually shows a stage of language learning. Kids often start off getting it right because they imitate the exact words people say, including verb exceptions, but then they realise the rule (-ed is the past participle) and apply it and get things wrong, but it shows they are thinking! Then they learn again all the exceptions.
Q: Off topic, but I wonder whether that’s a male thing to think? My hubby says similar things!
Elena: I’m not sure if it’s male, but if men aren’t the ones who are at home with the little ones most of the time, they might not have as good an understanding of how they think/act? it’s a bit of a skill to know how kids work.
Q: I think Elena’s right in that it’s probably more about insight, it’s just that in our society it’s usually the women who have that.
Elena: Yes, and I suspect that stay-home dads would probably have these insights too.

Q: Can you tell us about some of your other research? What are you working on at the moment?
Elena: This month we’ve launched the Early Deception Survey from 0-47 months. You can sign up at We want to see how kids deceive early on (if they do) and if there are stages to it. We know virtually nothing about deception until 3 years. Tell your friends about it! We are also working on creativity in toddlers in a lab setting. Kids play with novel objects and we see how much they explore. We’re now looking at whether it links to their temperament – which is kind of like personality traits.

Q: Last quick question – are there any experiments I can do on my 2 year old?
Elena: You can model some jokes where you mislabel a bunch of objects, e.g., calling a car a “woogy” and a cup a “mooga” and then see if he can continue and make up more jokes – that’s a fun one! Also, you can tell him not to peek at something enticing (a new toy), secretly watch if he does, then ask if he peeked, plus follow-up questions, e.g., what does he think you hid.


Big thanks to Elena for coming along and chatting to us, and we encourage everyone with a 0-47 months old to head over to to complete her Early Deception Survey!

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