Imagination is one of the most powerful tools of the human mind. With it, you can bring to life anything and everything — just think about it in your head and there it will be. Imagination is incredibly important in the development of a young child’s mind, and according to new research, parents who joke and pretend with their child are teaching them important life skills.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Psychology have found that parents who joke and play pretend with their children are also teaching them to differentiate between what is a joke and what isn’t, as well as when to use their imagination. The study showed that children as young as 16 months are able to pick up on parents’ cues as to the differences between joking and pretending.

This allows the children to learn, imagine, bond, and think in abstract ways. "For example, if a parent said something like, 'That's not really a hat!' children would realize it was a joke, and not real, and would avoid putting the toy chicken on their head." said Dr. Elena Hoicka, from the university's Department of Psychology. "But if parents were pretending that, for example, a block was a horse, they might repeatedly make the block gallop, which would encourage children to do the same, and understand that the block really was a horse in their imagination."

The researchers carried out two studies with two different age groups of children. For the first study, parents were asked to joke and pretend with their 16- to 20-month-old child using actions. This would include misusing objects, such as putting food on their heads or washing their hands without soap and water.

The second study saw parents of 20- to 24-month-old children joking and pretending verbally with their child. Examples would include what Dr. Hoicka stated, like saying a toy chicken was a hat and the block was actually a horse.

In both studies, when joking in comparison to pretending, parents showed more disbelief and less belief in their actions and words. The children showed less belief through their actions, while the older children displayed less belief through their words.

"The research reveals the process in which toddlers learn to distinguish joking and pretending,” Hoicka said. "Knowing how to joke is good for maintaining relationships, thinking outside the box, and enjoying life. 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."

Source: Hoicka, E. Butcher, J. Parents Produce Explicit Cues That Help Toddlers Distinguish Joking and Pretending. Cognitive Science. 2015.