U.S. first lady Michelle Obama dances with pre-kindergarten students. New research suggests that similar type of clowning around might turn kids into innovative thinkers. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A recent study from psychology researchers at the University of Sheffield in the UK shows that parents who joke and engage in pretend play with their toddlers can boost their toddler’s development at an extremely early age. Even as young as 16 months old, toddlers can begin to discern the difference between different types of non-literal concepts with the help of parental cues.

The reason why that matters is that being able to grasp the complexities of the non-literal world at an early age opens the door to more abstract thinking later in life. In other words, doing stuff that makes many parents feel ridiculous – for example, pretending a wooden block is really a galloping horse or acting out silly jokes with toy chickens – could be the key to raising kids who are able to engage in innovative thinking later.

This makes intuitive sense. By engaging in pretend play, parents encourage imagination, abstract thinking and the ability to grasp new relationships between objects. By acting out silly jokes, they help toddlers realize that there are more than just literal meanings to words and actions.

As Dr. Elena Hoicka, one of the University of Sheffield researchers, points out, “Knowing how to joke is good for maintaining relationships, thinking outside the box, and enjoying life. Pretending helps children to practice new skills and learn new information.”

“So while parents may feel a bit daft putting a toy chicken on their head, they can at least console themselves with the knowledge that they are helping their children develop important skills for life,” Hoicka added.

What the researchers focused on was the actual mechanism that parents use to help toddlers distinguish between different types of non-literal play. They had parents engage in specific types of joking and pretend play in a number of different scenarios (e.g. dressing, eating and drinking) and then watched as toddlers learned to grasp the differences between joking and pretending as a result of parental cues.

Being able to tell when someone is joking or pretending is actually harder than it sounds, especially at the tender age of 16 months. Both jokes and pretend play are acts that break conventions or normative rules, but in subtly different ways. Putting an object on your head might appear to be a silly joke at first, but you might also be pretending that you’re actually wearing a hat.

The researchers showed that toddlers were remarkably adept at picking up the differences between jokes and pretend play simply by following adult cues. If adults really sold the experience and made their kids believe that, say, a sponge was actually a hat, the toddlers understood that it was pretend play. If adults were registering signs of disbelief as they put a toy chicken on their head, the toddlers knew that it was all a joke.

This should warm the hearts of parents everywhere who act out scenarios with their kids using everyday objects around them or engage in silly jokes throughout the day. It builds on the growing consensus that “play” is the key to creative minds – a concept, by the way, that has already been embraced by some of the most innovative workplaces in America as well. Think of some workplace perks provided by tech firms across America –  foosball tables, anyone? – they build on the notion that having certain types of playful experiences with co-workers can be the key to unleashing innovative thinking in the workplace.

Where all this gets really interesting, of course, is when we think about the role that new educational technology can play in helping toddlers and young children distinguish between different types of non-literal play. As part of the study, which was published in the journal Cognitive Science, the researchers focused on specific non-literal acts – misused objects, object substitution and symbolic pretense – that could be replicated with everyday objects you might find in a toddler’s playroom. In other words, not a single smart phone or tablet or other Internet-connected device was used.

That raises the question, though, of how digital devices might be able to replicate those same types of jokes and pretend play scenarios that parents take for granted. Your smart phone can teach literal actions to your child – distinguishing between letters or shapes, for example – but can it help your child distinguish between different types of non-literal actions? Digital devices are good at precisely the types of tasks for which there are correct and precise answers, for which learning progresses through a series of clearly defined, linear steps.

That’s not what adults do when they engage in pretend play with toddlers. It’s much more abstract and much less structured. Take the example of wooden blocks that adults might pretend are actually galloping horses. If you take the basic parameters of a wooden block – a piece of inanimate material of specific size typically used to construct things – how could a computer ever possibly make the inference that you might actually be talking about a horse in motion?

So that might just be the next frontier in educational technology – using advances in fields such as robotics and artificial intelligence to design entirely new non-literal play experiences. Maybe the answer is something like the Internet-connected dinosaur toy from Elemental Path, which uses the IBM Watson cognitive computing platform to create a fun question-and-answer companion for kids. Or social robots that read stories and camp out at night with your kids.

Until educational technology becomes more advanced, however, it will be up to parents to help their kids expand their imagination and think in abstract ways. For now, there’s simply no computer in the world that’s better than a parent at helping their toddlers grow up to be innovative thinkers.