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‘Pretend play’ may teach empathy, negotiation skills

‘Pretend’, or ‘make-believe’ play may be more important to early childhood development than previously thought, professor of psychology Tracy Gleason asserted.

On top of numerous studies connecting imaginative play with creativity development, understanding of others and even social competence, Gleason, from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, in the US, said ‘pretend play’ could teach children to think from different perspectives and develop negotiation skills.

“As a psychologist who studies imaginary play and childhood development and is no stranger to the preschool classroom, I have met children for whom an imaginary friend or impersonation of a character is more than just an amusing pastime,” Gleason said in a recent article for The Conversation, “Such activities often reflect what children have on their minds.”

Research Gleason cited suggests children engaging in pretend play spend almost as much time negotiating the terms and context of the play as they do enacting it, which Gleason said might come in handy later on in life.

Gleason also said imaginary play can encourage social development, as children simultaneously behave as themselves and someone else, “This gives [children] a change to explore the world from different perspectives,” she explained. “For instance, if a child is pretending to be a mother, he or she must imagine what it would feel like if the baby cries or doesn’t behave. If a child is pretending to be the family dog, he or she needs to figure out how to communicate with the ‘owner’ without speaking.”

However, Gleason also admitted that the benefits of pretend play are correlational, meaning socially astute, competent children might just be more interested in pretend play, rather than such play actually making a child more socially competent.

“At the same time,” Gleason said, “adults who want to foster perspective-taking, empathy, negotiation skills and co-operation would do well to think about how lessons related to these skills could be embedded in the materials, themes and general content of children’s imaginative play.”

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