Want to boost your kids' life skills and help them get along with others? Then it's time to get serious about being silly. New research shows that kids whose parents joke around and pretend play with them naturally pick up social cues they need to bond with peers, learn in abstract ways, and think outside the box.

The study, which was published in a recent issue of Cognitive Science, was conducted by researchers at the U.K.'s University of Sheffield. Researchers found that kids as young as 16 months old pick up on cues from their parents that help them distinguish the difference between joking and pretending. What's more, the kids learn how to model this behavior in ways that could boost their social and developmental skills later in life.

For the study, researchers watched parents play with their 16- to 20-month-old children. In the first phase of the study, parents were asked to joke around and pretend with their kids using actions — for example placing a toy chicken on their heads or pretending to wash their hands without soap and water. In the second phase, parents joked and pretended using words, calling a round block a horse and pretending to make it gallop.

Researchers found that the toddlers — even the 16-month-olds — picked up on their parents' cues and understood the difference between a joke and pretend play. When their parents were joking, the kids showed more belief in the play when their parents were pretending and more disbelief when they were joking. They also modeled the behavior in their language (for the older children) and in their actions. For instance, when the parents were pretending, the kids would join in and pretend in the same way, making the block gallop around the room. But when they were joking, they would laugh but would not try to do the same thing.

While the ability to joke or think outside the box may not directly equate to higher scores on a standardized test, researchers note that the ability to joke around is important when building relationships. And learning how to pretend boosts imagination skills that can help kids learn new things and solve problems in creative ways.

So get serious about getting silly with your kids. It may feel a little funny, but they will love it — and it will pay off in life skills down the road.

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