Child Development: Does Pretend Play Have Real Benefits?

This is not a dishwasher box. It’s a rocket.

Angeline Lillard, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, recently talked to the Curiosity Dispensary about her research on pretend play, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin. After reviewing more than 150 studies on pretend play, Lillard and her colleagues found little evidence to back up prevailing assumptions about its crucial role in child development. I was a bit disappointed to learn this.  (Not that I ever spent any time as a fifth-grader belting out Abba songs in front of my closet mirror.)  However, Lillard did assure me that pretend play can still be a meaningful part of childhood:

Over the years, I’ve logged a few hours with my kids playing everything from ice-cream truck to animal hospital to schoolhouse.  Some games I’ve enjoyed and some I’ve gritted my teeth through, but I always assumed that pretend play was good for every aspect of a  child’s development—especially cognitive development. What’s been the common wisdom?

The common wisdom is exactly what you say. Just this morning, a newspaper in Adelaide, Australia, sent me a little article. They went around on the street and asked five Australians [what they thought of pretend play], and they were all, “Oh yes, it’s important for social skills, creativity, thinking skills, and problem-solving skills.” Developmental psychologists have been no different in making these claims.

I always accepted this as well. Yet I found myself getting increasingly uncomfortable as the calls for pretend play became more and more vehement—partly in reaction against changes going on in pre-schools. Since “No Child Left Behind” [was signed into law in 2001], preschools are looking even more like elementary schools and they’ve started having lessons done in a serious, didactic way, which for three-to-five-year-olds is completely inappropriate. (I even think for six-to-twelve-year-olds it’s inappropriate.)

For really good reasons I have seen people say, “But play helps all these aspects of development” [and schools should make time for it]. But I’ve also known the research was weak. I was also bothered by some people dismissing Montessori education because its curriculum lacks pretend play. Having done some research showing Maria Montessori [and the schools she founded in the early 20thcentury] had good outcomes, I like Montessori; regarding play, Montessori in a sense has it and in another sense does not.

What is the Montessori approach to pretend play?

A lot of people say Montessori is an example of playful learning because it has hands-on activities and children are engaged in doing what they’re interested in. They’re free to interact with their peers. But I remember being told when I was in a Montessori pre-school that I couldn’t play pretend with the broom and mop. The teacher said, “These are not to play pretend with. They are to do real things … to clean up the room.”

In the early 1900s Maria Montessori had toys in her classroom, but what she found was that children preferred doing real activities. They actually eschewed toys in favor of learning to read and learning to write and washing the floor. So she gradually took the pretend play out. That doesn’t mean that children who go to Montessori schools today don’t do pretend play when they’re out of school. But the research on pretend play does not suggest that it is crucial to development.

What did your own research turn up?

First of all, a lot of the findings in support of pretend play are correlational, not experimental.  They just show an association. If children who engage in more social pretend play also do better on tests of social understanding, it may be because social pretend play caused them, but it also could be that children with better social skills and understanding are better at getting other kids to pretend play with them. You can make the same argument with creativity and most other skills that have been examined.

 The second and really big problem is that several studies [in which children were trained to pretend play] were re-done so the    person doing the test after the training did not know whether the children were in a pretend-play group or a control group. When they’ve been blind, we’ve rarely had any results. Peter Smith, in London, has called this the play ethos. We all think pretend play helps, so when the experimenter is doing the post-test knowing which group the children were in, they just change the way they administer the tests, which results in better performance.

In one solid training study, children were engaged in pretend play and an experimenter who didn’t know what group they were in gave them three post-test narratives and asked what they remembered about the stories. Those children did better on a lot of those measures. But that study only had 12 children. So we need to know more.

So what is pretend play actually good for?

It may be that a really well done study with really good training will show [its benefits]. Second of all, I’m sure it’s good for fun. It can also be a good venue for adult -child interaction if the adult enjoys doing it. If it’s enjoyable and makes life more meaningful … that’s a very valuable thing.

One of our fun recent studies looks at when pretend play ends. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget said that pretend play ends at about age six. [He saw it as children’s expression of unfulfilled wishes and said that when they got old enough to accommodate their cognitive structures to reality, they would stop.] We gave undergraduates a retrospective survey and asked, “When was the last time you remember playing like child?” The average age was 11 ½ and about 30 percent of those surveyed said they still played pretend as college students. One said, “I pretend I’m James Bond when I’m doing errands.” Another said, “I pretend I’m Beyoncé.”

So pretend play may not end as early as Piaget thought?

Ken Walton, a philosopher at the University of Michigan, has said that when we go to a museum and look at a painting, we’re pretending. [The same thing happens] when we’re reading a novel. We’re pretending that’s a real [story].

Does any of the reliable data show a benefit to pretend play?

There are some studies showing that when you couch a situation in pretend-play terms, children reason better. For example, in solving logical syllogism problems: “Rex is a cat. All cats bark. Does Rex bark?” So you have to say yes, because Rex is a cat and cats bark. Young children have a problem with these problems, and they say no. But if you say, “There is a pretend planet and on that planet, the cats bark,” children do better. [However, just as useful] is the tester saying beforehand, “I want you to really think hard about this.”

There are two studies that make it look like maybe emotion regulation is helped. For example, if children are having a difficult time being dropped off at daycare, and they go pretend-play by themselves … But those studies weren’t well controlled, so we’re trying to follow up on this.

Is there anything about the  subjects themselves that makes it difficult to study this topic? 

Children are pretending various amounts on their own outside of school, and that’s not something that’s been looked at. If you’ve  just happened to get very voracious pretenders in one of your experiment groups or in one control group and not another, you might get different results because of what’s happened outside the “intervention.” We need to have a pre-intervention measure of how much they play on their own.

I understand you’re doing fMRI studies with your colleague, Jamie Morris, in social psychology. What are you finding about how our brains process pretense?

We saw that a lot of “theory of mind” areas of the brain were engaged when the adult subjects were watching a pretend event [such as someone talking on a phone that was really a banana], and we also found that there was less engagement in certain areas in people who had a high imagination, suggesting they were more efficient at processing fantasy information. All this was very interesting. But we didn’t find any specific neural signature of pretending.

What we found was that participants with an elevated fantasy predisposition—people who really liked fantasy novels, for example—when they were looking at high-likelihood pretend acts versus real acts, like somebody talking on a real phone, we saw different activation patterns [than in the less fantasy-prone group].

So that’s something we need to look at. It suggests there may be some differences there that depend on your frequency of engagement in fantastical experiences.

So did you ever get around to doing any pretending of your own after you were told you couldn’t play with the mop at preschool?

I did it at home. I remember pretend-playing up til age 12. We lived across the woods from a country club and I remember pretending we were spies in the Cold War and we would go and spy on imagined enemies while they were having dinner. Up the lane from our house was a fallen-down tree, and me and my sisters would pretend we were settlers in the forest. Other times we were Indians … We did a lot of Swiss Family Robinson-type stuff.

And you became a professor after all of that. So no harm was done.

It wasn’t at all harmful. It seems quite plausible that pretend play must do some good. It certainly stands to reason, but we just don’t have the data to back it up yet.

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