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Peers, cooperative play, and the development of empathy in children



Cooperative peer play emerges in the second year of life. How applicable is Preston & de Waal's (P&deW's) model to the empathic processes in cooperative play? Empathic responses during peer play are more general than they propose, and more dependent on mental state understanding. Moreover, peer play forces children to reason about others' feelings, possibly serving as a unique mechanism for empathy development.
Peers, cooperative play, and the development of empathy in children
Celia A. Brownell, Stephanie Zerwas, and Geetha Balaraman
Department of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260.
Abstract: Cooperative peer play emerges in the second year of life. How applicable is Preston & de Waal’s (P&deW’s) model to the
empathic processes in cooperative play? Empathic responses during peer play are more general than they propose, and more
dependent on mental state understanding. Moreover, peer play forces children to reason about others’ feelings, possibly serving as a
unique mechanism for empathy development.
In the second year of life, human infants become true social partners with one another for the first time. Between 18
and 24 months of age, children begin to engage in unique, nonritualized, cooperative interactions with peers
(agemates), and this development appears to be universal (Brownell & Carriger 1990; Eckerman et al. 1989; Eckerman
& Whitehead 1999). Thenceforth, peer play and interaction become progressively more central as a context for
socialization. It can be argued, in fact, that children’s peer play enables and drives enculturation as much as does adult-
child interaction (Tomasello et al. 1993).
Although peer play occurs in many species, among human children peers not only accommodate their behavior to
one another dynamically and share emotion expression and behavior during play, but they also share one another’s
goals, desires, and beliefs. Thus, one characteristic feature of the peer play that emerges in the second year of life is its
fundamentally cooperative nature. Cooperative play, in turn, is permitted by the child’s emerging ability to infer others’
intentions, feelings, and thoughts, and to accommodate play to a peer’s mental states as well as to a peer’s overt
behavior (Brownell 1986; Brownell & Carriger 1991; Smiley 2001).
Emotion infuses children’s social play with peers, and empathic concern for others constitutes “the underpinnings of
compassion and connection in social relations” (Zahn-Waxler et al. 1992b,
p. 1083). However, empathy with others’ distress is but one aspect of this complex socioemotional landscape. A wide
variety of emotions are shared in children’s social play with one another. Emotional contagion and vicarious
experiences of interest, joy, glee, pride, shame, guilt, and envy can be observed during dyadic interactions as well as at
the group level. Thus, empathic arousal during young children’s play is more general than Preston & de Waal (P&deW)
propose in their PAM model of empathy, which focuses largely on contagious processes associated with fear or distress
responses. A model explaining the development of empathy must account for how children come to experience positive
emotions vicariously as well as fear and distress, and secondary emotions such as pride and guilt as well as primary
At the same time, empathic arousal via vicarious processes is too narrow a mechanism to encompass and explain the
emotional communication and understanding that underlie the development of both peer social play and empathy past
infancy. Consider the following scenarios. A preschooler watches her little brother crying in frustration as he tries
repeatedly to set his truck on the shelf and the truck repeatedly rolls off. Later, she watches the same younger brother
laughing gleefully as his truck rolls off the shelf each time he sets it there. A toddler in a playgroup watches as a peer
has a temper tantrum after an adult has taken away the peer’s toy. Later he watches the same peer weeping sadly after
another child has grabbed her toy. In these common, everyday events, children must read well beyond other children’s
emotion behavior to understand and respond appropriately both to their intentions or desires and to the emotions that
follow from the other’s success or failure in fulfilling those desires (Meltzoff et al. 1999). Participation in cooperative
play depends on these abilities, and it is not coincidental that the first instances of empathy emerge at the same age as
the first instances of cooperative play (Zahn-Waxler et al. 1982).
These complex emotional scenarios are different from expressions of pain or fear in response to an identifiable
object or observable event in a given setting. One of the hallmarks of human emotional response is that emotions can
be generated by unobservable mental states, including beliefs, desires, attitudes, memories, and their interaction with
one another as well as with the external world. Thus, to empathize with and respond appropriately to others’ emotions
requires the child to infer these mental states based on understanding how they are induced and how they relate to one
another and to behavior (Eisenberg et al. 1997; Feshbach 1978; Hoffman 1984). And it is precisely these kinds of
events and circumstances that pervade and define the daily social experiences of young children in play settings with
By the middle of the second year, children respond with sympathetic concern rather than personal distress to simple
pain and distress expressions in others (Zahn-Waxler et al. 1992a), and this occurs in tandem with the initial
development of cooperative peer play (Brownell & Carriger 1990; Eckerman et al. 1989). But not until 3 years of age
or older do children respond appropriately to more complex emotional events such as those described above,
presumably because it is only then that they understand the intentions or desires that produce emotional responses in
others. It is also during the third year that children first begin to mark linguistically and to take into account
behaviorally their peers prior intentions during play (Smiley 2001).
By the later preschool years, children can infer their peers’ emotional states from knowing about the particular
events that another experiences, from the contexts in which the events occur, and from knowledge of an individual’s
history and preferences (Eisenberg et al. 1997). These inferential abilities become critical for empathic arousal and
empathic responses, including prosocial behavior, in part because external behavioral cues become less reliable as
indices of another’s emotional state (Saarni et al. 1998). Human children learn to blunt, mask, exaggerate, or otherwise
alter expressive behavior to coincide with cultural display rules. Thus, the cognitive contributions to development of
empathy in human children are as important as are the emotional and behavioral components.
As developmental psychologists, we wish to explain the age-related changes in children’s understanding of and
behavioral re-sponses to these kinds of emotional events. Although empathic arousal must enter into peer play, and
empathic concern must play a role in governing children’s responses to one another during play, such processes must
themselves be subordinated to still more complex processes of interpersonal reasoning that include inferences about the
very feelings that define and constitute peer play. Thus, one key question for understanding the development of
empathy in humans is how the ability to infer emotional states develops and how children come to discover the causal
links among external events, mental states, and emotion behavior. Can a perception-action model, even one enriched by
recognizing cortical processes and mechanisms, address the developing social understanding and reasoning about
mental states that ultimately must enter into description and explanation of human empathy and its development?
Correspondingly, we must ask whether the social mechanisms residing within mother-child interaction, as proposed
by P&deW to explain the development of empathy, are the same ones that reside within peer play. Preschool children
talk about shared emotions, intentions, and inner states with friends and peers more than they do with siblings or
parents, and this especially occurs during cooperative play (Dunn 1999). Similarly, 2-year-olds announce their own
mental states more often to peers during play than they do when playing with mothers. By the preschool years, children
direct helping and other altruistic behavior more to peers than to adults (Zahn-Waxler et al. 1982).
Furthermore, peer play forces children to behave altruistically and to take account of one another’s feelings, whether
real or imagined. Peers share play materials based on inferred emotions in others and they collaborate in thematic play
based on inferred desires and intentions of others. They also participate in the altered realities of joint pretend play,
which includes sharing altered emotional realities such as pretending to be afraid of the jointly imagined tiger, to be
distressed by the jointly imagined pain of its teeth, and to be overjoyed by the jointly imagined superhero’s rescue.
How do the normative changes in peer play, and the unique demands and collaborations of peer play, contribute to
normative changes in emotion behavior, emotion reasoning, and empathy past infancy?
One measure of the utility of P&deW’s model is how applicable it is to the multiple social contexts in which
emotion communication processes are paramount and empathic processes are central. Cooperative play among young
human peers is one such context. It is the development of children’s emotional responses, including empathic
experiences and behavior, in these complex emotional ecologies that we seek to understand.
... A wide variety of emotions infuses social play, and emotional contagion and varying experiences of interests stream through the interaction. In this context, the communication of emotions and empathic processes occur to accommodate peers' intentions, feelings, and thoughts, which is paramount for the play's maintenance (Brownell, Zerwas, and Balaram 2002). Within common play and friendship-relations, children experience a sense of belonging, feel supported and protected, and feel a sense of acceptance and positive self-esteem through pleasant, stimulating experiences (Bukowski and Sippola 2005). ...
... In play, the children experience a sense of belonging and intimacy through the play's subjects and intentions (Papadopoulou 2016). The emotional involvement that infuses children's play through both the play's thematic imagination and the affirmation and valuation that this intersubjective communication mediates is an empathic experience that children want in the wake of experiencing peer rejections (Brownell, Zerwas, and Balaram 2002;Stern 2010). These findings highlight the value of play and the importance of belonging in the community of play for the children's well-being in ECEC. ...
... Friendship for young children implies someone to explore themes and pursuing interests together, as well as a relation that involves expressions of affection, care, and valuation of each other's thoughts and wishes (Papadopoulou 2016). In this way, the intimacy and the closeness that characterize friendship relations create a foundation for sharing emotions, intentions, and inner states, as well as receiving empathy through this affective inter-subjectivity (Brownell, Zerwas, and Balaram 2002;Papadopoulou 2016). ...
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Peer rejections impair children’s well-being in ECEC, impede their social and emotional development, and increase the risk of multiple forms of peer adversities. This study explores children’s need for empathy when experiencing rejections from peers in free play situations in ECEC. The data were collected through video-recorded dialogical interviews with children between three and a half and six years of age and analysed within a phenomenological hermeneutical approach. The findings show that children’s need for empathy was most dominantly initiated by the wish to play and experience belonging, and this need was felt in relation to other children as well as ECEC staff. The findings highlight the importance of the ECEC practitioner’s being present and available for emotional and social support for children in play negotiations, as well as her or his involvement in facilitating participation, encouraging children’s empathic expressions, and promoting inclusion.
... Studies Spontaneous cooperative behavior in different contexts Orlick et al. (1978); Orlick and Foley (1979) Participation in sharing behaviors Orlick (1981) Cooperative social responses. Motor variables (spatial orientation, eye-hand coordination, ability to throw, run, jump, hit) and, especially, static and dynamic balance Mender et al. (1982) Cooperative interactions in class, self-acceptance and acceptance of others, participation in class activities, and a positive classroom environment Blazic (1986) Positive physical and verbal contact during free play, decreasing negative physical contact and negative verbal interactions Grineski (1989) The social interaction and motor development of children of all groups, with greater influence on children with visual problems Zanandrea (1998) Helping behaviors, cooperation, the ability to incorporate others, and group cohesion Carlson (1999) Reasons for others' feelings and the capacity for empathy Brownell et al. (2002); Celume et al. (2020) A decrease in peer rejection in the classroom context Mikami et al. (2005) Prosocial behaviors, decreasing the dissocial ones in schoolchildren with problems of coexistence Beltrán (2007) The level of collaboration, the time they spent cooperating, and the depth with which they collaborated van der Aalsvoort and van der Leeden (2009) Prosociality in schoolchildren institutionalized due to high psychosocial risk, reducing direct and indirect aggressiveness Valencia (2010) Adjusted cooperative motor behaviors Lavega et al. (2014) Psychomotor domain (motor performance, postural tonic control, schema and body image, coordination of arms and legs) and social skills Cuesta Cañadas et al. (2016) An increase of acceptance in dyads and a decrease in the number of isolated students Andueza and Lavega (2017) More intense positive emotions Miralles et al. (2017) Self-esteem Vega (2018) Prosocial behaviors in physical education classes Navarro-Patón et al. (2019) A decrease in aggressive behaviors Haro (2019) Social skills Guevara and Ubillus (2019); Ochoa (2019); Guerreros (2021); Goldstein and Lerner (2018) Social interaction, rule-making and enforcement, constructive conflict management, and participation in promoting the common good Garcia (2021) The current work summarizes the effects of four psychoeducational intervention programs based on the research question about how cooperative-creative play may have significant benefits for child development. Throughout the last two decades, different studies were carried out to test the significance of results regarding competency development, and in this current work, we proposed to review these findings, offering a global perspective of the outcomes and postulating that cooperative-creative games have relevant benefits for several variables of socio-emotional development, as well as for the development of intelligence and creativity. ...
... These results point in the same direction as other studies that confirmed the positive effects of play on various factors of social, emotional, and psychomotor development (Andueza and Lavega 2017;Blazic 1986;Brownell et al. 2002;Carlson 1999;Cuesta Cañadas et al. 2016;Garcia 2021;Guerreros 2021;Guevara and Ubillus 2019;Grineski 1989;Beltrán 2007;Lavega et al. 2014;Navarro-Patón et al. 2019;Mender et al. 1982;Mikami et al. 2005;Miralles et al. 2017;Ochoa 2019;Orlick 1981;Orlick et al. 1978;Orlick and Foley 1979;Valencia 2010;van der Aalsvoort and van der Leeden 2009;Vega 2018;Zanandrea 1998) and also ratify the results of the recent review (Garaigordobil 2022) that shows the positive effects of play on the development of intelligence and creativity. ...
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Abstract: This work presents the results of four cooperative-creative game programs (Game Programs). In all four studies, experimental designs with repeated pretest-posttest measures and control groups were used. Validation samples ranged from 86 to 178 participants, randomly assigning participants to the experimental and control conditions. Before and after each program, a battery of assessment instruments was applied to measure the variables under study. The intervention consists of conducting a weekly game session during the school year. The results of the posttest covariance analyses confirmed a significant impact: (1) in social development, by increasing various positive social behaviors and decreasing many negative social behaviors; by increasing assertive cognitive strategies and prosocial resolution of interpersonal problems; and by enhancing relationships and positive communication among group members; (2) in emotional development, by improving self-concept, peer image, and emotional stability; and (3) in cognitive development, by increasing verbal intelligence, verbal and graphic-figurative creativity, as well as creative personality behaviors and traits. This work provides empirical evidence of the relevance of cooperative-creative play in child development.
... In other words, through group play, children are motivated to engage with others at affective levels. According to Brownell et al. [20], for ensuring successful play activities, children must cooperate by dynamically tailoring their behaviors to each other. In this process, they also come to share emotions, goals, desires, and beliefs. ...
... Together with age, higher levels of empathy are commonly linked to higher levels of cooperation [20]. ...
Cooperation is motivated through internal impressions of different situations. This paper hypothesized that playing dynamic group games can lead to more positive impressions of group members and, in turn, higher levels of cooperation. A study was conducted with 42 participants, aged 7 to 12 y/o, to perform one of the following group activities: Play an Energetic or a Relaxing Dance Game, or; Perform a Group Conversation. Afterwards, participants evaluated their self and group affective impressions. A Reward-sharing task was conducted to evaluate Group Trust levels and Cooperative Dispositions. Participants in both Game Group conditions significantly perceived their group members as more energetic and displayed higher Group Trust levels than participants in the Group Conversation condition. The more energetic participants perceived their group members, the higher were their group trust levels. Results suggest that, by influencing group energy impressions, group games can immediately motivate cooperation among children.
... One of the main reasons for this finding is the active role of emotions in the process of play. Emotions hold significant importance, especially in children's social play (Brownell et al., 2002;Zahn Waxler et al., 1992). According to Strayer and Roberts (1989), children who understand emotions during play are more comfortable taking on roles and exhibit more positive social behaviors in their play interactions. ...
The aim of this study is to investigate the relationship between empathy levels, self-perceptions, and interactive play skills with peers in children during the preschool period. The study utilized a quantitative research design, specifically employing a correlational survey model. A total of 128 children attending educational institutions in the Uskudar district of Istanbul, Turkey, were included in the study. The participants were selected using the convenience sampling method. The data collection instruments used in the study were the "Demographic Information Form," "Empathy Scale for Children," "Purdue Self-Concept Scale for Preschool Children," and the " Penn Interactive Peer- Playing Scale-Teacher Form". The study's results revealed a moderate positive correlation between children's empathy skill levels and play interactions. Additionally, a moderate negative correlation was found between empathy skill levels and disengagement from play. Furthermore, a positive correlation was observed between the sub-dimension of maternal acceptance, which is one of the components of the self-perception scale, and play interactions, while a negative correlation was identified between scores related to play disruption and disengagement. However, no significant relationship was found between the other sub-dimensions of the self-perception scale, namely social, academic, and physical competence, and play skills.
... Play can happen anytime and everywhere. Cooperative peer play compels children to take the other's perspective, being a potential catalyst for empathy development (Brownell et al., 2002). Rough and tumble (R&T) play, object play, and social and pretend play are several of the categories used to describe traditional formats of children's play activities, each with its own features and aims. ...
... Play can happen anytime and everywhere. Cooperative peer play compels children to take the other's perspective, being a potential catalyst for empathy development (Brownell et al., 2002). Rough and tumble (R&T) play, object play, and social and pretend play are several of the categories used to describe traditional formats of children's play activities, each with its own features and aims. ...
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Purpose Empathy is part of what makes us human and humane, and it has become a core component of the Social Awareness competency of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) (CASEL, 2019). SEL fosters the understanding of others’ emotions, is the basis of Theory of Mind skills and frames the development of empathy. The purpose of this paper is to trace the links between empathy development and social and emotional learning when using real versus virtual environments. Empathy is a uniquely human emotion facilitated by abstract thinking and language. Virtual play is a teaching tool for acquiring prosocial behaviors. And finally, human-mediated (traditional and virtual) play is most favorable for SEL growth. Recognition of emotions such as empathy and other socio-communication skills have been taught to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Therefore, technology can be a venue for acquiring empathy. Design/methodology/approach This paper uses a qualitative interpretive methodology to advocate for the use of technology with human mediation to teach Social and Emotional Learning skills, based on the premise that cognitive and social-emotional development occurs synergistically and mediated by speech and interaction with the environment. Findings Technology is best seen as an instrument of assessing and teaching socio-emotional skills, but not as the only means to an end, because what makes us human can only be taught within an ecology of human interaction in real-life situations. Originality/value This paper reviews previous research works (both empirical and theoretical) that bring to light the connection between socio-emotional development, specifically empathy development, and virtual environments.
... During infancy, empathy is best understood through the lens of emotional contagion (Hoffman, 2000). Although empathy need not be constrained to responses to others' negative emotions only (e.g., Brownell, Zerwas, & Balaram, 2002), the current research focused on children's responses to another's distress. Indeed, little has been done to investigate children's responses to peers' distress in naturalistic or quasi-naturalistic settings despite the fact that infants' responses to others' cries are some of the first empathic responses humans make (Hoffman, 2000). ...
The ability to display caring responses to another child’s distress is a key aspect of early empathy that is facilitated by parental socialization. However, existing studies typically involve lab settings and focus on toddlers’ unsupported responses to adult simulations of distress, raising questions about their ecological validity. Framed within the New Fathers and Mothers Study, the current study involved 156 British toddlers (Mage = 24.35 months, SD = 0.73) who were filmed at home with either their mother or father (87 mothers and 69 fathers) in a novel paradigm involving a lifelike crying baby doll. Capitalizing on the inclusion of both fathers and mothers, a key question concerned effects of parent–toddler dyad gender composition on both global ratings of toddlers’ displays of empathic concern and more specific indicators, including toddlers’ attentional, emotional, and behavioral responses. Whereas parental responses did not differ by either child or parent gender and appeared to be closely attuned to child behavior, toddlers’ responses showed effects of both (a) child gender, evident in higher rates of emotion labeling in girls than in boys (even when controlling for language ability), and (b) parent gender, evident in higher levels of empathic concern for girls observed with fathers than for those observed with mothers. These findings are discussed within the context of empathy development and parental socialization.
Previous research on the relationship between empathy and subcategories of prosocial behavior, specifically cooperation, has shown inconsistent findings. It has also paid limited attention to gender differences in the impact of empathy. Therefore, this study examined the relationship between empathy and cooperation in Chinese junior high school adolescents, and the gender differences, through three studies. In Study 1, 448 eighth‐grade adolescents (age = 12–15 years, 55.1% males) completed the Interpersonal Reactivity Index and Cooperative Propensity Rating Scale; the results showed that adolescent empathy was positively associated with cooperative propensity, and this association was significantly higher for males than for females. Study 2 used longitudinal data from 246 eighth‐grade adolescents (age = 12–15 years, 54.5% males) to further support the positive association between empathy and cooperation propensity and the gender differences found in Study 1. Study 3 employed the public goods dilemma to examine the effects of empathic states on the cooperative behavior of 157 eighth‐grade adolescents (age = 13–16 years, 48% males) by evoking empathy. Using different research methods, this study revealed a facilitative relationship between empathy and cooperation and demonstrated that empathy was more predictive of cooperation among male than among female adolescents.
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Social robots are gradually entering children’s lives in a period when children learn about social relationships and exercise prosocial behaviors with parents, peers, and teachers. Designed for long-term emotional engagement and to take the roles of friends, teachers, and babysitters, such robots have the potential to influence how children develop empathy. This article presents a review of the literature (2010–2020) in the fields of human–robot interaction (HRI), psychology, neuropsychology, and roboethics, discussing the potential impact of communication with social robots on children’s social and emotional development. The critical analysis of evidence behind these discussions shows that, although robots theoretically have high chances of influencing the development of empathy in children, depending on their design, intensity, and context of use, there is no certainty about the kind of effect they might have. Most of the analyzed studies, which showed the ability of robots to improve empathy levels in children, were not longitudinal, while the studies observing and arguing for the negative effect of robots on children’s empathy were either purely theoretical or dependent on the specific design of the robot and the situation. Therefore, there is a need for studies investigating the effects on children’s social and emotional development of long-term regular and consistent communication with robots of various designs and in different situations.
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Recent research on peer interaction shows that complex, coordinated play emerges around 24 months. Increased understanding of others’ intentions has been proposed as a reason for its emergence at this juncture. In this study, we assessed understanding of the intentional structure of human action in children aged 19 to 39 months by eliciting verbal explanations of observed action. We hypothesized that more elaborated understanding of intention would be related to more partner-sensitive behaviors during interactions with familiar, same-age peers at home. We found that level of intention understanding predicted types of overtures made, types of objects offered, monitoring partner responses, partner compliance, and types of speech acts addressed to partners. Results are discussed in terms of the contribution of intention understanding to interactive competence, the role of linguistic competence in conceptual development, the effects of context on the production of speech acts and developing theory of mind.
A developmental pathway is proposed for toddlers' mastery of the skills involved in generating non-ritualized forms of cooperative coordinated action with peers and the studies of USA toddlers supporting this pathway reviewed. The proposed pathway posits (a) a central role for nonverbal imitative acts in enabling toddlers to generate together extended bouts of nonverbal coordinated action and (b) a central role for these bouts of imitative coordinated action in facilitating toddlers' development of verbal means of coordinating action. This pathway then guides an analysis of the development and functions of imitative acts among toddler peers from a quite different cultural context--the Seltaman people of Papua New Guinea. Twelve Seltaman toddlers were observed with peers at near-weekly intervals over a six-month period. Ready imitation of one another emerged among the Seltaman toddlers during the same developmental period as for USA toddlers and functioned similarly to generate extended bouts of coordinated action--reciprocal imitation games. The themes of the reciprocal imitation games, however, varied in line with the socialization practices and characteristic play settings of the two cultures. These findings provide further support for the proposition that these imitative acts form part of a distinctly human pathway of development related to the emergence of human language.
Cooperation in peer interaction emerges during the second half of the second year. A consideration of the skills and knowledge entailed in these early forms of cooperation suggests that young children's emerging ability to differentiate self from other as causal agents may relate to their ability to coordinate behavior with age mates toward a common goal. Children at 12, 18, 24, and 30 months were observed in same-age, same-sex dyads (8 dyads per age) while attempting to solve a simple cooperation problem. They were also individually administered an elicited imitation task used to index decentration, or self-other differentiation. No 12-month-old dyad could cooperate, 18-month-olds did so infrequently and apparently accidentally, whereas 24- and 30-month-olds were able to coordinate behavior with one another quickly and effectively. Children who were better able to accommodate their behavior to one another during cooperation also represented the agency of others at a more advanced, decentered level.
14 peer dyads were observed longitudinally at 16, 20, 24, 28, and 32 months to assess developmental changes in social coordinations (both action-to-action thematic relations and extended games). Each child's movements through the playroom, actions upon play material, vocalizations, verbalizations, and gestures were coded for their relation to the concurrent or immediately prior behavior of the peer: Unrelated, Tangential, Coordinated, Interfering. There was a marked increase with age in acts coordinated with those of a peer, and imitations of the peer's nonverbal actions accounted for most of the developmental change. The use of words to direct the peer in a coordinated way increased with age but remained infrequent. Developmental change in the frequency of games paralleled that for imitative acts, and imitative acts both established and set the theme for most of the games. Thus, imitating another's nonverbal actions is a core behavioral strategy for achieving social coordinations during the developmental period preceding reliance on verbal communication in peer interaction.