Much of the early research on children's pretend play focused on the young child's ability to generate pretend actions. This research tradition owes its origins to Piaget's (1945/1962) seminal observations of his own children at play. Rich in description, and accompanied by a strong conceptual framework, Piaget's work inspired a series of subsequent studies of children's ability to produce pretend actions during the course of solitary play (for reviews, see Fein, 1981; Bretherton, 1984). Frequently, these studies drew on Piaget's notion of the emerging semiotic function, in particular the young child's ability to distinguish between signifier (e.g., wooden block) and signified (e.g., bar of soap), to explain the accomplishments witnessed in solitary pretend play (Nicolich, 1977; McCune-Nicolich, 1981).
While not repudiating Piaget's approach directly, a different tradition emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century. The focus of researchers in this tradition is pretend play in a social context, particularly pretending in mother-child and child-child dyads. The accompanying conceptual framework, though less explicit than Piaget's, emphasizes the social-cognitive gains that derive from collaborative interactions (see Rogoff, 1990; Cole, 1996). To be sure, an emphasis on social context in symbolic (pretend) play is in itself not new, owing a debt to Vygotsky (1930–1966/1978) and Werner & Kaplan (1963) among others. However, more recent empirical work on pretending in context has added important information about the particular factors that influence social pretend play.