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More than make-believe: the benefits of imaginative play

Noah and Maya have a sleepy baby. “Goodnight, baby,” Noah croons as Maya places the baby into a cot and tucks it in.

In reality, Noah and Maya are at least 15 years too young to raise a child; they’re both 3. The baby is, in fact, a rag doll. Like most children their age, the pair are imaginatively playing.

Imaginative play, which psychology professor Tracy Gleason at Wellesley College defines as “any form of play that includes removing yourself from the here and now”, may seem to be a childish form of downtime activity, but there are some promising academic findings on its cognitive benefits. Vivian Paley, an internationally eminent imaginative play researcher, implies this in her 2004 book, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play. Upon witnessing imaginary play in a preschool, she described the social effort it entails: “First there was the business of deciding who to be and who the others must be and what the environment is to look like and when it is time to change the scene. Then there was the even bigger problem of getting others to listen to you and accept your point of view while keeping the integrity of the make-believe, the commitment of the other players and perhaps the loyalty of a best friend.”

Positive pretence

So we know it’s complex, but lending more specific evidence for imaginative play’s developmental benefits is a 2014 study that indicated there was “strong evidence that there is a relation between theory of mind development and pretend play in 4-year-old children”. Theory of mind refers to the understanding that other people’s thoughts and feelings may be different from your own. The Handbook of Child Psychology states that it is essential to the development of social intelligence. Another study suggested that the amount and complexity of imaginative play correlated positively with a child’s social skills and popularity. The same study found that imaginative play also tended to be more continual and social than non-imaginative play.

Chicken or egg?

Yet other studies, such as The Impact of Pretend Play on Children’s Development: A review of the evidence (2013), state that it is unclear whether imaginative play fosters social development, or if more socially developed kids tend to participate in more imaginatively play. In other words, it is a chicken and egg conundrum. In choosing a side – metaphorical chicken or egg – the authors were cautious: “Existing evidence does not support strong causal claims about the unique importance of pretend play for development,” they wrote.

Gleason noted that although the authors could not claim a direct nexus between imaginary play and development, they deemed it one possible social intelligence aid. Others they mentioned included supportive carers, as well as children’s sociability and intelligence. In Gleason’s own words, imaginative play “is certainly not the only way those [social] skills can be developed”. This means that if kids are happy to simply play themselves, that’s fine, too. “Not everyone engages in pretend play, but even if they don’t, they often turn out to be socially competent people,” Gleason explained.

Kids like Noah and Maya love playing mummy and daddy, and so they should. Distinctively beneficial to development or not, it’s a common part of growing up.

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