Jury still out on benefits of ‘pretend play’

U. VIRGINIA (US) — Pretend play can be fun for preschool children, but it may not be as crucial to a child’s development as previously believed.

Based on a number of key studies over four decades, pretend play is widely considered by psychologists, teachers, and parents to be a vital contributor to the healthy development of children’s intellect.

But, a new review of more than 150 studies published online in the journal Psychological Bulletin looked for clearly delineated contributions of pretend play to children’s mental development, and found little or no correlation.

Pretend play is any play a child engages in, alone, with playmates, or with adults, that involves uses of the imagination to create a fantasy world or situation, such as making toy cars go “vrrooooom” or making dolls talk.


Much of the previously presented evidence for the importance of pretend play to development is derived from flawed methodology, says lead author Angeline Lillard, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

Testers may have been biased by knowledge that they were testing children who had engaged in adult-directed pretend play prior to testing Lillard says.

“We found no good evidence that pretend play contributes to creativity, intelligence, or problem-solving,” Lillard says. “However, we did find evidence that it just might be a factor contributing to language, storytelling, social development, and self-regulation.”

It is often difficult for psychologists to separate whether children who engage in pretend play are already creative and imaginative or if the pretend play, often encouraged by parents or teachers, actually promotes development.

“When you look at the research that has been done to test that, it comes up really short,” Lillard says. “It may be that we’ve been testing the wrong things; and it may well be that when a future experiment is really well done we may find something that pretend play does for development, but at this point these claims are all overheated. This is our conclusion from having really carefully read the studies.”

Various elements often present during pretend play—freedom to make choices and pursue one’s own interests, negotiation with peers, and physical interaction with real objects—are  valuable, especially with appropriate levels of adult guidance.

These conditions exist both in pretend play and in other playful preschool activities that encourage children to discover their own interests and talents.

Pretend play is important diagnostically for children between 18 months and 2 years old, Lillard says. A complete absence of pretend play among children of that narrow age range could indicate autism, and suggests that such children be evaluated for other signs of the neurological disorder.

A growing problem is a trend in schools that intensely prepares children for tests—often supplanting organized and informal playtime, leading to a debate over whether early childhood curricula should include materials and time for pretend play.

“Playtime in school is important,” Lillard says. “We found evidence that when a school day consists mostly of sitting at desks listening to teachers, recess restores attention and that physical exercise improves learning.”

Source: University of Virginia