Many people often think of play in the form of images of young children at recess engaging in games of tag, ball, using slides, swings, and physically exploring their environments. But physical play is not the only kind of play.
We often use the terms pretend play or make-believe play (the acting out of stories which involve multiple perspectives and the playful manipulation of ideas and emotions), that reflect a critical feature of the child’s cognitive and social development. Over the last 75 years, a number of theorists and researchers have identified the values of such imaginative play as a vital component to the normal development of a child.
Systematic research has increasingly demonstrated a series of clear benefits of children’s engagement in pretend games from the ages of about two and one half through ages six or seven. Actual studies have demonstrated cognitive benefits such as increases in language usage including subjunctives, future tenses, and adjectives. The important concept of “theory of mind,” an awareness that one’s thoughts may differ from those of other person’s and that there are a variety of perspectives of which each of us is capable, is closely related to imaginative play (Jenkins & Astington, 2000; Leslie, 1987; Singer & Singer, 1990; Singer & Singer, 2005).
Psychologist Sandra Russ (2004) identified a number of different cognitive and affective processes that are associated with pretend play. Her research dealing with play involves fantasy, make-believe, symbolism, organization, cognitive integration of seemingly separate content, and divergent thinking (the ability to come up with many different ideas, story themes, and symbols). Pretend play allows the expression of both positive and negative feelings, and the modulation of affect, the ability to integrate emotion with cognition (Jent, Niec, & Baker, 2011; Seja, & Russ, 1999; Slade and Wolf, 1999).
The research reviewed by Berk, Mann & Ogan, (2006) and Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Berk, & Singer (2009) suggest that make-believe games are forerunners of the important capacity for forms of self-regulation including reduced aggression, delay of gratification, civility, and empathy. When children use toys to introduce possible scenarios or friends, the representation of multiple perspectives occurs naturally. Taking on different roles allows children the unique opportunity to learn social skills such as communication, problem-solving, and empathy (Hughes, 1999).
An important benefit of early pretend play may be its enhancement of the child’s capacity for cognitive flexibility and, ultimately, creativity (Russ, 2004; Singer & Singer, 2005). Russ, for example, in longitudinal studies, found that early imaginative play was associated with increased creative performance years later (Russ, 2004; Russ, & Fiorelli, 2010). Root-Bernstein’s research with clearly creative individuals such as Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant awardees, indicated that early childhood games about make-believe worlds were more frequent in such individuals than in control participants in their fields (Root-Bernstein, 2012).
What are the sources in children’s environments that promote early and frequent imaginative play? Research has demonstrated that parents who talk to their children regularly explaining features about nature and social issues, or who read or tell stories at bedtime, seem to be most likely to foster pretend play (Shmukler 1981; Singer & Singer 2005).
A school atmosphere in which pretend games are encouraged, or even just tolerated in the curriculum or recess play of children has also been shown to lead to even greater amounts of imaginativeness and enhanced curiosity, and to learning skills in preschoolers or early school-agers (Ashiabi, 2007; Singer and Lythcott 2004). Indeed, educators are using pretend games to teach math and reading (Clements, & Sarama, 2009; Ginsburg, 2006).
A key question that arises from the literature is how parent and teacher training in “guided play” may influence literacy. Singer and colleagues conducted a series of studies on the effectiveness of Learning through Play, an intervention program designed to teach parents and educators how to engage in learning-oriented, imaginative play games with children (Singer, Plaskon, & Schweder, 2003).
In the initial evaluation of the program, kindergarten children of low-SES parents who participated in the intervention showed significant gains on an academic readiness assessment than those whose parents did not participate. Modest improvements were found in subcomponents of the test, including vocabulary, knowledge about nature, general information knowledge, and knowledge about manners.
In another curriculum, Tools of the Mind, inspired by Vygotsky’s theory, scaffolding of cognitive control is woven into virtually all classroom activities (Bodrova, 2008). For example, teachers encourage complex make-believe play, guiding children in jointly planning of play scenarios before enacting them. Teachers also lead rule-switching games in which regular movement patterns shift often, requiring flexibility of attention.
Perhaps the idea of a built-in “pretend play recess” during the regular school day—where children can get together and explore an infinite amount of possible combinations of ideas, emotions, and perspectives—will one day be just as acceptable as traditional, but no less important, forms for recess and play.