Pretend play is both vital and unique to humanity even if, as research suggests, more of it does not boost cognitive learning or creativity.

Joe likes to be a lion, leaping onto the sofa, roaring. Sometimes, though, he’ll be mum or dad, setting out a cup and plate to give his teddy some tea. Then, he’ll put his teddy to bed, singing him a song. This is pretend play. Joe is pretending to be someone, something or somewhere else.

Contemporary conventional wisdom has elevated such imaginative pretend play to considerable heights. It’s been seen as a pathway to enhanced cognitive skills and more effective learning. It has also been thought to encourage creativity later on in life – providing a royal road to adult innovation. For some, particularly in the United States, today’s living rooms are the playing fields for tomorrow’s tech creatives.

However, respected and careful research over recent years has failed to justify these beliefs in the consequences of pretend play. Links between pretend play in early childhood and later cognitive development have not been systematically demonstrated.  The same goes for links to creativity in later life.

“Pretend play is strange, intriguing and consequential. It matters.”

These challenging findings, drawn together in an exhaustive and thorough evidence review by Angeline S. Lillard and colleagues, should not be ignored.  But the risk is that pretend play may, as a consequence, fall from favour with education experts.  That’s because it is losing its significance for what are regarded today as the educational essentials for child development – the building of cognitive skills, becoming ‘school-ready’ and preparing for the long journey towards fruitful employment and sound citizenship.

Repeating old mistakes about pretend play

And therein lies the problem – pretend play may end up being judged as largely irrelevant to child development. This important, imaginative activity is at risk of being re-characterised – as it once was by earlier observers of childhood – as little more than a charming but harmless distraction to be outgrown and eventually superseded by logical adult thinking.

Such a conclusion could greatly under-estimate pretend play’s significance. Yet it’s gaining traction for two reasons. First, because, whatever benefits actually accrue from imaginary play, Lillard’s review shows that they are not those that are typically championed.

Second, pretend play’s diminishing status reflects a narrowing view of child development, held by increasingly test-orientated educational systems. If pretend play no longer ticks certain achievement boxes, these systems may render it as unimportant.

Three reasons to value pre-school pretend play

We should be wary of such downgrading. It could lead educators, policy makers and parents to offer children fewer pre-school opportunities to play in imaginative ways. That would be unwise because early pretend play is so obviously important, even if we don’t yet fully understand why. Here are three reasons.

First, pretend play is distinctively and markedly human – there is scant evidence for pretend play in any species other than human beings. So it’s likely to have a key evolutionary role for humanity.

Second, pretend play emerges spontaneously in almost all normal children – it is ubiquitous across cultures.  Children all over the world pretend play, albeit in different ways and varying amounts. This occurs irrespective of whether adults pay attention or nurture the activity.

“We’d be wise to avoid jumping to policy conclusions or to strict rules of educational practice, given how little we really appreciate about its workings.”

So pretend play is intrinsic and natural to humans; it’s not merely a socialised behaviour. Indeed, where it does not emerge in a given child, or is very restricted, it’s often associated with major social and cognitive deficits. Thus, the absence of pretend play among, for example, children with autism, is linked to psychological difficulties.

Third, far from being annihilated by maturity, pretend play in children is actually remarkably similar to – and continuous with – what adults do. Like grown-ups watching a film or imagining a situation, children’s imaginative play is not fantastical.

Research shows that it abides by normal rules of logic and causality. At the same time, young children have little difficulty telling the difference between reality and make-believe. Like adults, they can enjoy the latter without confusion about how the world really is.

pretend play

Photo: Bart. Creative Commons.

Children are realists, not fantasists

This is hardly surprising since children are not wildly imaginative. Much of their play involves the re-enactment of everyday scripts – having tea, a bath, pretending to go to the doctor’s. If one considered children as writers, one would say they invent realistic fictions, rather than fairy stories or sci-fi adventures.

They are not autonomous generators of grand fantasy, but they are receptive consumers of it. They can also easily rework into their pretend play what they consume from, say, cartoons or storybooks.  But left to their own devices they don’t invent a fantastical world. In traditional village communities where most people are engaged in pastoral activity or limited farming, and where television does not intrude, children play in ways that reflect ordinary life – such as taking a bowl, putting leaves in it, grinding it and re-enacting what adults do.

Freud and Piaget misunderstood pretend play

So, children’s imaginative play is not as desire-driven or undisciplined as Freud implied. It is deeply regulated by their understanding of the everyday and its causal constraints. Nor is it a mental cul-de-sac from which older children retreat in pursuit of more logical thinking, as suggested by Piaget.

It is true that young children invest great emotion in their imaginative play. They get caught up in it, often becoming enwrapped by this personal drama. But in this respect they are no different from adults. Moreover, like adults watching a horror film, older children can choose to become emotionally embroiled or take up a more detached position. Children and adults can let themselves become absorbed in a make-believe or fictional scenario. In this regard, children and adults are not fundamentally different – they sit on the same spectrum and are closely connected.

In short, childhood pretend play looks to be much more than harmless fun. It appears to have an important but as yet unquantified place in our humanity. The interesting question, then, is probably not whether it is a normal part of child development. ‘Of course,’ seems to the obvious answer. The more interesting question is likely to be: what and how exactly does pretend play contribute to human development?

Does it develop judgment on causality, morality and risk?

We don’t know the whole story yet. But it is clear that pretend play feeds children’s capacities to think about other possibilities, at a time when they still know little of the world. It nurtures abilities to shuttle back and forth between these possibilities and what actually happens. That may help, for example, to develop causal and moral judgments as well as in the assessment of risk. Childhood pretence may beget adult counter-factualism.

Pretend play is strange, intriguing and consequential. It matters. We should continue to research and think about it because we’re far from understanding it fully. We’d be wise to avoid jumping to policy conclusions or to strict rules of educational practice, given how little we really appreciate about its workings.

Header photo: Katie Chao and Ben Muessig. Creative Commons. 

Policy Implications

Beware of evaluating programs in early childhood education in terms of narrowly academic metrics.

References

 Harris, PL (2000), The work of the imagination, Oxford: Blackwell/Wiley