Testing joint attention, imitation, and play as infancy precursors to language and theory of mind
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Various theoretical accounts propose that an important developmental relation exists between joint attention, play, and imitation abilities, and later theory of mind ability. However, very little direct empirical evidence supports these claims for putative “precursor” theory of mind status. A small sample (N=13) of infants, for whom measures of play, joint attention, and imitation had been collected at 20 months of age, was followed-up longitudinally at 44 months and a battery of theory of mind measures was conducted. Language and IQ were measured at both timepoints. Imitation ability at 20 months was longitudinally associated with expressive, but not receptive, language ability at 44 months. In contrast, only the joint attention behaviours of gaze switches between an adult and an active toy and looking to an adult during an ambiguous goal detection task at 20 months were longitudinally associated with theory of mind ability at 44 months. It is argued that joint attention, play, and imitation, and language and theory of mind, might form part of a shared social–communicative representational system in infancy that becomes increasingly specialised and differentiated as development progresses.