PARENTING TIPS

Pretend play — and the past tense

pretend play

There’s something funny that I have noticed: when they pretend play, my children (and their friends) often use the past tense.

I’ll give an example. Playing goes something like this (imagine, in this case, lots of Playmobil characters and horses with accessories, and a completely engaged couple of friends, moving different horses and characters around):

[CHILD 1] I was the horse riding teacher at the manege, and you were the student… And I had the white horse… 

[CHILD 2] Yes, and I had this black horse, with this brown saddle, and the brown pony…

[CHILD 1] Yes, and I had the other black horse as well and the two grey ponies with these saddles…

[DISPUTE — change to present tense]

[CHILD 2] No! That’s not fair because now you have two horses and two ponies and I only have one horse and one pony, so I want to have one of the grey ponies with the saddle!

[CHILD 1] OK but I’m the teacher so I want to have the horse blanket for my horse then!

[CHILD 2] Alright then…

[RESUME — back to past]

[CHILD 1] OK so I had the white horse and the black horse with the blanket and the grey pony, and I was riding the white horse when you came for a lesson on your black horse and you said ‘Please teach me to galop and to jump over these hurdles?’

[CHILD 2] ‘Please teach me to galop and to jump over these hurdles?’  And then my horse saw your horse and they became friends, so their stable had to be located next to each other…

etc

It’s really such an interesting way of communicating, and I find it fascinating that they use this special past tense while negotiating their pretend activities and to outline the ‘stage’ in their pretend play. I even developed a little theory about it — I think that if in play, children use the past tense, it’s more of a ‘done deal’ (since it basically ‘happened’) and evokes less arguments. (In the case that it does, the argument are settled in the present tense, only to go back to the past tense quickly after.)

I also noticed that it seems to happen more in girls’ pretend play then that of boys– the above (fictional) example could well have been played by Sara and one of her girl friends, where Pim with a boy friend is more likely to build giant Lego rockets or marble tracks or dinosaur parks or things like that, without much discussion or negotiating at all. However, Pim and Sara can play together for hours, cleverly combine dolls and horses with knights, war and dinosaurs — and then they do use this special past tense then.

I just wonder — does any of you also recognise this phenomenon? Or is this something that just happens in our little family? I would love to hear more about it — I find it so sweet and funny!

xxx Esther


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Comments (22)

Eve
February 13, 2015

Haha! That conversation is hilarious because it’s SOOO recognizable. Love the stables that have to be next to each other. I find there is a lot of strategic insight used as well, expecially by my eldest. She just knows how to get others to do what she wants in so many different ways, it’s scary. 😉 And most of the time the others don’t even notice she’s turned things around to her own liking.


February 13, 2015

My little ones are a bit too young still (almost 2 years and 9 months), but I can’t wait to see if they do!

Maria xx
http://www.sunandshineblog.com


Nomi Olsthoorn
February 13, 2015

So cute!! And I can even remember doing this myself! As a psycholinguist, I wonder though if it may be a remnant of a conjunctive in Dutch (assuming your kids’ conversation took place in Dutch):

from the dutch wikipedia page:
“De aanvoegende wijs of conjunctief […] drukt een handeling uit die (nog) niet heeft plaatsgevonden voor zover de spreker zich daarvan bewust is. Dit heet ook wel een irrealis, die plaatsvindt bij het verwoorden van een wens, aansporing, mogelijkheid, voorwaardelijkheid, onwerkelijkheid, onzekerheid, twijfel, toegeving of doelgerichtheid.


Esther in Amsterdam
February 13, 2015

That sounds like it could be it? I’m not sure — there seems to be difference between — if I were a horse / If I was a horse (in Dutch: ik zou het paard zijn / ik was het paard). I’ve also heard the term ‘imaginary past’ somewhere. It’s so interesting (especially since — as far as I know — it’s a grammar only used by children).


Michi
February 14, 2015

Hi! thats quite funny because that’s exactly how my boys speak in their pretend play. i have no idea what the Dutch wikipedia text says but when my boys play it sounds as if they’d prepare a play scenery like “i would be the black knight and would say. stop! and you would say no!” ” and I would be a super knight who would be able to fly and would throw little poisoned arrows.” “no you wouldn’t. you would fly and i would jump and get you”…. and when saying this they play it with their little playmobil figures… they even tell the other one what to say:”you would say: i don’t give you my treasure and i would say :give it tome!”… they speak the same way when they play role plays… another interesting fact is that they don’t use dialect, they speak standard german in their play… I’ve always wondered if that would be a normal way of communicating. So thank you for that article Esther and thanks Nomi for bringing up the subjunctive! – xx


Nomi Olsthoorn
February 13, 2015

sorry, in English this tense is called subjunctive.


February 13, 2015

Ha! That’s hilarious! My kids talk in the present tense by what they do that makes me smile is spend soooooo much time setting up their play – building a house and making other little sets and then they have to set the scene very particularly: “pretend that my mouse is actually a mermaid and it saw a shark and the shark bit her arm. And your bunny can be the mermaid doctor and this can be the hospital and…” And then I tell them it’s time to eat dinner/brush teeth/go to school and they are devastated because they hadn’t actually played yet – “we were setting up!” Cracks me up every time


Esther in Amsterdam
February 13, 2015

Sounds familiar! 🙂


Esther in Amsterdam
February 13, 2015

But past of the play is also in the past tense, no? (‘It saw a shark and the shark bit her arm’) Maybe it’s just a special kind of pretend language that can only happen in the past tense?


Courtney in London
February 13, 2015

Belinda – that’s so funny (and such a sweet observation)! xx


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Marieke
February 13, 2015

I totally recognize this use of past and present tense (in Dutch)! And I love your theory about it. I’m going to take better notice in the future and check if it’s true. Thanks!

PS I have two girls (6 and 8 years old)…


February 13, 2015

That’s so interesting! I can’t wait to see if my little one does this too. Are most picture books in past tense? I can’t think off the top of my head and don’t want to go into her room to check as she’s napping! It could be in relation to that, if so – we tend to tell stories in past tense and imaginary play is sort of playing at story-telling.


Esther in Amsterdam
February 13, 2015

That’s true — fairy tales are told in the past tense — maybe it has something to do with that!


Jen
February 13, 2015

That’s incredible. I’ve never heard of such a thing. I never played speaking in the past tense as a child. Fascinating!!!


esther
February 13, 2015

Very recognizable..Both of our girls do so..
My 3 year old even subtitles herself in the past tense when she is playing by her self: “and after a while I took a sip of my drink” (and she pretends drinking, after she said so…) Fascinating


February 13, 2015

This is so great! What a wonderful observation.

I wonder if they are imitating adults. Children tend to be fascinated by listening to adults, and even older children, recount events with one another–this thing that happened, this place they went, what they did. Perhaps they’re pretending to be big:)


Courtney in London
February 13, 2015

I’m pretty sure my kids use the present tense, but I’m going to really spy on them this weekend to see if that’s always true! What a fascinating observation. xx


Karina
February 14, 2015

Such a fun read! Actually, I vaguely remember doing this as a child with my friends and that it was the common way to play (I’m Norwegian). Perhaps it’s a universal thing practiced by some? I also wonder, like Heather mentioned, if this could be related to story-telling where children might have been unconsciously inspired and are trying to create their own story in a way. It’s also probably a great way to play since this kind of story telling will undoubtedly make children better at writing stories in school, I can imagine.


Harriet
February 16, 2015

My (6yo) son and (3yo) daughter do this when they’re playing an imaginary game (“and then you said/and then you ate me/and then your dinosaur went…”) and I’ve been wondering why. Wondered if they’ve picked it up somewhere but clearly it is something many children do. Fascinating! I definitely see it as a way of them trying to control the way the game is going but in a way that doesn’t seem too bossy to the other (so the game isn’t ruined).


Adriana Hurtado t
February 16, 2015

My children use the past tense in pretend play too, and in Spanish! And yes, I think the past/present combination helps to distinguish the organization of play -“Let’s say you were my children and I had to wake you up”- from the actual play -“it’s time to wake up, kids!”-, just as in children’s books the narrator often speaks in past tense, “once upon a time there WAS a king…”, while the dialogues happen in present tense. Makes sense!


Irena
February 19, 2015

I remeber we used to talk like that too when we were kids and play ‘pretend’. I guess it might just come from farytales – they are narrated also usually in past tense and childern are used to connect a story with a certain way of talking…


Whitney
March 18, 2015

Who is the artist of that adorable bunny watercolor up on your daughter’s wall? I love it!


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