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. Continue reading