Sunday, September 9th, 2012
Have you come across the new claim that the effects of pretend play on development have been overstated? Let’s break this down, first from the research perspective, and then from the practical angle.
A recent paper published in the journal Psychological Bulletin conducted a review of existing studies on pretend play and cognitive, social and language development. The authors were especially interested in assessing the evidence for “causal” associations – e.g., does pretend play lead directly to increases in creativity? Without going into the details of how all this is done, let’s cut straight to their conclusions.
They suggest that pretend play does not lead to any gains in creativity, intelligence, or problem solving.
They suggest that pretend play is associated with the development of language, storytelling, social development, and self-regulation.
I don’t find these conclusions to be especially disruptive to the idea that pretend play is an essential part of childhood development. First, note all the important outcomes that are connected with pretend play. This is an impressive list – I’m sure any parent would want to promote these skills in their toddlers. Second, I believe the point of the article is to challenge the idea that pretend play is an essential component for educational programs in order to promote “academic” progress. I don’t have a big problem with this – I’ve always thought of pretend play as being more a part of the social/emotional development spectrum and in particular something that is very interactive in nature. The authors point out that other forms of play are critically important for “academic” development and that these should be emphasized in the classrooms of preschoolers.
So one take-home message to me is that parents and educators may want to be sure that a variety of play types are encouraged in our preschools. Some may be especially effective at promoting problem solving – others might let social skills flourish. Using research methods to refine the need for multiple forms of play is to me a good step.
A second take-home message is that pretend play is a marvelous thing, whether it’s practiced at home or at school. Kids love it! As a parent, some of my favorite memories of my daughter from her toddler years was when she was engaged in pretend play. There was a time when every Saturday morning would be devoted (at her initiative) to her coming up with some type of pretend activity – whether it was serving us in a restaurant, putting on a dance recital, or using stuffed animals to transform a room into an animal shelter. During those years, I never wondered if all that pretend was going to translate into advanced cognitive skills. I took it as a delightful way for her to interact with us and to explore her world. Simply refining – for the educational context – the social nature of pretend play, and the many skills it pulls for, would only argue for the need for incorporating multiple types of play, all of which have a way of coming together to make for a happy and well-rounded child.