Let’s Not Pretend That Play Isn’t Important

This is a guest post from Mary Hynes-Berry, Ph.D., a senior instructor at Erikson Institute in Chicago. Erikson is a leading graduate school in childhood development, working to improve the care and education of children up to age 8.

Last week, a University of Virginia press release announced “Pretend Play May Not Be as Crucial to Child Development as Believed, New Study Shows.” Angeline Lillard, Ph.D., the lead investigator, reported that, in a review of 150 prior studies, “We found no good evidence that pretend play contributes to creativity, intelligence or problem-solving. However, we did find evidence that it just might be a factor contributing to language, storytelling, social development and self-regulation.”

Early childhood experts see those statements as contradictory. The last decade’s explosion of brain research firmly establishes that, in early childhood, development is very much intertwined; cognitive, social-emotional, and motor skills all affect one another. Developing language, storytelling, social development, and self-regulation will contribute to developing intelligence, creativity, and problem-solving skills—meaning pretend play is an active ingredient in all of them.

What’s more, while we can identify different kinds of play, it is difficult to isolate just one form—and that’s what this study does. The study concludes that constructive play is a crucial factor in developing creativity and problem-solving skills, but rules out pretend play.  That doesn’t make sense. Think about how your own children play: When they’re imagining, they’re also usually physically moving about and constructing props or settings, such as turning a box or a few blankets into a castle or a rocket-ship, right?

The danger of this study is that it could fuel the current obsession with testing, which pressures teachers to drill numbers and letters into children, leaving no time for play-based learning. In fact, Dr. Lillard recognizes the same point in the conclusion of her academic article.  Her final sentence should have been the lead for the press release: “The hands-on, child- driven educational methods sometimes referred to as ‘playful learning’ are the most positive means yet known to help young children’s development.”

Image: Barefoot baby girl “shopping” via Shutterstock.

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