To prepare our children to meet the goals of a complex world, we should pull them out of their managed world and plop them in the mermaid’s court. That’s the verdict of a randomised control trial published recently in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology that found American pre-schoolers who engaged in fantastical pretend play showed improvements to their executive function – the suite of cognitive abilities that organises thought and actions to achieve goals.
The study involved daily 15-minute play sessions across five weeks, in which a research assistant led 39 children aged three to five through a fantastical script, such as going to the moon. After the five week period, the pretend play kids showed greater gains in their ability to memorise lists of digits (a classic test of working memory, itself a core component of executive function) as compared with 32 age-matched children in a standard play condition, who spent their sessions singing songs and passing a ball around a circle.
The pretend play group also showed a bigger improvement on an executive function attention-shift task, which involved switching from sorting blocks by colour to shape. This result squeaked through thanks to the standard-play group’s scores actually creeping down over time as the pretend group scores crept up, but note that on its own terms, the pre-to-post change in pretend group performance wasn’t itself statistically significant. On a third executive function measure – “inhibition of responses” (children had to follow a tricky instruction to label a nighttime scene as day, and a daytime scene as night) – there was no effect of the pretend play.
What might be driving the improvements to executive function that were found? Pretend play involves the adoption of certain mental scripts, such as “I’m a dragon and should flap my arms when I’m moving,” that don’t carry across to the real world, which means players have to selectively adopt and switch between these scripts and default norms of behaviour. Drawing on past evidence, lead author Rachel Thibodeau and her colleagues said they suspected that it’s the fantastical elements of pretend play that are the most liable to hothouse executive function development, as they involve managing specific, unique scripts and larger leaps from the everyday than, say, answering a toy telephone.
The researchers’ interpretation was supported in a followup analysis that coded the style of play each child displayed over the 25 sessions: children whose pretending was more fantastical did better at the working memory task. Also, greater overall engagement in the pretend play activity was associated with two outcomes: larger improvements in executive function, as well as firmer beliefs in fantastical entities like the tooth fairy.
I mentioned this was a controlled study, but have so far avoided talking about the third control group, which comprised children who didn’t enjoy any kind of play but simply continued their lessons. My reason is that comparisons between the pretend play group and no-play control group tended to be statistically non-significant. The control group’s executive function scores were in between the play groups – meaning that they actually did better than the standard play condition.
Future research might show that pretend play is better than no play at all, but the best-supported conclusion from the current study is different: that play that gives children scope to exercise their imagination is more valuable than rote, managed play experiences, such as another rousing chorus of “the wheels on the bus.” After all, during class-time at least you can grab a minute to daydream about dragons. I know I did.
Thibodeau, R., Gilpin, A., Brown, M., & Meyer, B. (2016). The effects of fantastical pretend-play on the development of executive functions: An intervention study Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 145, 120-138 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2016.01.001
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