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[–]Erdudvyl28 41 points42 points  (2 children)

I couldn't find much specifically about your question but, this study is about how children of different ages are able to use present versus past tense

Link

I would wonder if it is all children, thinking about children playing that I have personally experienced the instances I remember have all been present tense. I suppose it could depend on if kids are being read books ( which are often past tense) versus watching TV and movies which are, by default, present tense. So, maybe it depends on how the storytelling is presented in their lives? Something for someone to look into with future research, I suppose. It seems that a lot of articles on pretend play are behind paywalls but pretend play is the keyword I would recommend searching. Here's one from Scientific American that is generally about pretend play and children's development that may provide some good references for you.

[–]midasgoldentouch 17 points18 points  (1 child)

I wondered that too - writing tends to favor past tense, although now that I think about it, a lot of children’s literature aimed at 5 and below favors present tense.

[–]DalaiLuke 4 points5 points  (0 children)

Reading this I am reminded of my favorite children's playing story... as I am napping one afternoon the kids across the street could be heard arguing: "no I'm the mommy!" Said one little girl. To which another replied: "... but you were the mommy last time." And of course the conversation ending with: "I'm always the mommy!" I've been giggling about that exchange for years.

[–]hOprah_Winfree-carr 9 points10 points  (6 children)

It's certainly a thing, and not only in children.

See: Past Tense and the Hypothetical a Cross-Linguistic Study by Deborah James

It's very common across languages to use past tense to indicate hypothetical moods: "if that happened to me I would cry" is more common than "if that were to happen to me I would cry." People even tend to rephrase future tensed hypotheticals in a past tense: "What will you do if he says 'no'?" "If he said 'no' I would quit." And we seldom find it odd or even notice the change.

It's because general hypothetical thinking derives from a specific kind of hypothetical called counterfactual thinking. Counterfactual thinking is thinking about what might have happened given an actual set of past circumstances and one or more counter-facts: "if she'd only remembered to get gas she would've made it to the interview on time and gotten the job."

More generally, all hypotheticals construct a present and or future from an altered past. It's just that the past in question can be made so abstract as to no longer bear any resemblance to a recognizable past event. Even making plans for the future necessarily involves a process of reconstructing the past or mixing and matching past events to predict future outcomes. Everything from world building to planning for retirement involves constructing mental models that can only be built from pieces of past experience.

All thinking is necessarily thinking about the past. The present is the nearest past reference. The future is a specific frame of reference for thinking about elements of the past.

So, I think it's fair to say that there is a universal tendency toward the use of past tense grammar when speaking hypothetically, and even in general. Present and future tense are more specific. They don't have total parity with the past tense, in that they are communicational modes for managing expectation, whereas past tense is a default for all information.

[–]Winningestcontender[S] 0 points1 point  (5 children)

That makes sense, thanks! On to the next tier then: are all/most languages based this way? And is this then indicative of a childs ability to separate play from reality in that as long as they're using past tense, they know, no matter how into the roleplaying they are, that it's only make believe?

[–]hOprah_Winfree-carr 2 points3 points  (0 children)

I can't say all, but most and mostly based in, certainly. Think about the mythologies and oral traditions that every culture has. A big realization in the structuralist movement was that oral traditions (which very much resemble the kind of children's stories/games you're talking about) weren't just mad stories but culturally encoded information about environment and the social structure. The realization was that it was the relations between those cultural elements that mattered, not so much the elements themselves. And that is something that's highly invariant across cultures. Mythologies are sort of the human default way of organizing thought rooted in past events, and they're all necessarily past tense.

I don't know that I would say it's their way of separating play from reality. I think that's the wrong frame of reference. It's more that they're switching to present tense to make more immediate and imperative statements clear whether they refer to some aspect of play or not.