Symbolic Play

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Symbolic (also known as fantasy, imaginative, dramatic, or pretend) play is universal in human beings. It is an important part of ontogeny, especially in childhood, where it may incorporate objects imbued with connotative significance, e.g. toys such as dolls. Its simplest form is rough-and-tumble play or play-fighting, where motor patterns that typically are aggressive become transformed into role-playing. Apes in nature may treat objects (e.g. other animals, even sticks) as if they were infants, cradling and carrying them about in mock-parental behaviour. Captive apes, especially individuals enculturated by home-rearing, may go further, and use an object (e.g. toy telephone) as if it were real. Linguistically-trained apes may be linguistically playful in their signing, such as punning. Sex/gender differences found in humans also emerge in nonhuman primates, e.g. juvenile vervet monkeys prefer toy trucks while juvenile females prefer dolls.

The five types of play listed above may not be isomorphic, and no systematic study has been done to try to distinguish them, in either humans or apes. Thus, some types or aspects of symbolic play may be unique to humans but others not, and some types may not be universal (e.g. preliterate vs. literate societies). Although adult-immature (usually parent-offspring) symbolic play is common in humans, it is unknown in apes.

Some proportion of what is generously glossed as symbolic play in nonhumans may have no symbolic content, and some may even be mistaken manifestation of faulty stimulus-response processes, e.g. a chimpanzee juvenile who cradles a dead mongoose may not realise that it is not a conspecific.

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