Theory of Mind - activities for babies and young children

A previous blog post explained all about Theory of Mind –understanding your own and others thoughts and feelings, and ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.’  This is a gradual journey for your child – from a baby who is just starting to learn that other people exist and can bring pleasure, to a pre-school child who is learning about their own and other’s feelings, and how to cope with these.  This blog post will show you some ways you can help your young child in their journey to develop Theory of Mind.

4 tips for Babies for Theory of Mind

Help your baby learn about themselves and other people with the following simple games:

  • Make silly faces by exaggerating your mouth movements, making a big ‘o’, smile, sticking your tongue out… and  see if your baby attempts to copy you.  Reward any attempts with a big smile and tickle
  • Peek a boo encourages your baby to focus on your face, and share the anticipation of the game with you
  • What can you see?  Follow your baby’s eyeline and talk about or play with what they are looking at or seem interested in
  • When sharing a toy together, make sure you are face-to-face, and hold the toy close to your face so that your baby can see your facial expressions whilst you play.  Remember that babies visual skills develop gradually, so holding the toy around 10 inches from their face will help them to see and stay focused on it.

2 tips for Toddlers and Pre-School Children for Theory of Mind

At this age it’s all about putting yourself in your child’s shoes.  This will help your toddler enjoy spending time with other people, and learn how to pay attention to the same things as other people.

  • Get down on the floor and try to be face-to-face when talking to or playing with your toddler – this helps them pay attention to you, and you will also be more able to see things from their perspective (literally and metaphorically!)
  • Don’t try to lead your toddler’s play, but play with what s/he is playing with, in the way s/he is.  By showing your child you are paying attention to them, they will be more able to let you join in with their play.
    • Copy their actions – if they are drumming on their toy bus instead of driving it, you do the same thing
    • Once you’re having fun playing together, try adding on another play idea (e.g. drum slightly faster or slower, or try tapping instead of drumming)

3 pretend games to help improve Theory of Mind

The development of imaginative play shows your child is beginning to think flexibly and creatively, so important to Theory of Mind development.  Here are some of my favourite pretend games:

  • Pretend play (with real toys)
    • Tea parties – with real (plastic) or toy cups, saucers, a teapot/jug, and some toys that might want a cup of tea
    • Spread out a blanket and have a pretend picnic
    • Drive toy cars or a bus to pick up passengers, talking about where they are going, dropping the passengers off at school
    • With a brush and a comb, some towels, and empty shampoo bottles (hide the real scissors and use your fingers!) you can play hairdressers
    • Set up some tins and empty food packets on the floor and play shops
  • Pretending an object is something else
    • A mop or a garden cane can be a flying broomstick, an oar, a bridge…
    • A stick can be a wand, a screwdriver, a drum stick, a cheerleaders baton…
    • A big box can be a racing car, a spaceship, a castle…
    • A hairbrush can be a microphone, for pretending to be a pop star, a sports commentator, a pilot, which leads nicely on to…
  • Role play – a clear example of your child trying to work out how someone else might act (think, and feel).  Join in with them so that they can learn from you how to pretend to be someone else, and try to stay in role!
    • Let your child wear an item of your clothing and pretend to be mummy or daddy.  This is your chance to be the child!
    • A hat (which can be made out of paper or card) can help your child pretend to be a sailor, a king, or a chef
    • Take a look for other props around the house.  Can your child use a scarf or some toilet roll as a pretend bandage so they can pretend to be a doctor or a vet?  Or can they use a fork as a pretend spanner to be a mechanic and fix their toy car?

Understanding complex ideas for Theory of Mind

Toddlers and pre-school children are already learning about emotions and thoughts.  You can help them understand these complex ideas by: Taking some of these ideas and applying them in your play with your child will help you both learn about each other, and may give you some insights as you try to see things from your baby or child’s perspective – the development of Theory of Mind can be a very rewarding process for all involved!  In our next blog post we will discuss how to support Theory of Mind development in older children.

  • Watch what your child is playing with or looking at, and talk about that – say what you think your child might say or might be thinking, e.g.
    • “You made a tower!  A tall tower!”
    • “That’s a big dog!  Is it a friendly dog? Yes it’s friendly”
    • “You dropped your ice-cream.  That is sad”
  • Be clear with your own emotions – your child may not be able to tell how you are feeling just from your facial expression, so using clear body language and labeling your emotions will help them understand we all have feelings, and learn to label these in themselves and others

Written by Alys Mathers, Speech and Language Therapist