Pretend.PlayIt’s one of the things we child psychologists have always believed: pretend play creates social skills, creativity, and the ability to tell a narrative (among other things). So when I read this article published in Psychological Bulletin, I expected to write a fun coronation of pretend play. What I found absolutely shocked me: the researchers from the University of Virginia couldn’t tell if pretend play is a means to an end or if it’s merely a sign that things are going well. More specifically, the article weighs three possibilities: Is pretend play necessary for positive development? Is it one of many routes to development? Or is pretend play a symptom of other factors that lead to positive development? Here’s what they found:

Again: everyone agrees that a child who is at times a Labrador and at others a griffon is on the right track. But does pretend play actually create the good things we’re likely to see in this child’s future or does it simply mark a child who is likely to do well?

The problem, of course, is pulling apart correlation and causation – but it’s not nearly as trivial as it seems: if pretend play causes development, then we should prescribe pretend play for struggling children; but if pretend play merely marks development, then all the therapist-guided pretend play in the world ain’t gonna change a child’s trajectory.

So what seems like a silly chicken-and-the-egg thing is actually kind of an essential, fundamental question for what we do: should we encourage kids into pretend play or should we just be happy when we see it?

Here’s what the review finds about pretend play in the training of cognitive skills:

1. Creativity

“The evidence that pretend play enhances creativity is not convincing.” That’s the cheery start of this section’s summary. Sure, creative children tend to engage in pretend play, but it really hasn’t been shown that pretend play creates creative children. (Damn.)

2. Intelligence

“Relationships are found in natural settings between levels of play and intelligence, but the direction of effects is uncertain.” If we assume that sentence is written in English, it can only mean the same thing as creativity: intelligent kids pretend, but pretend doesn’t necessarily make a kid more intelligent.

3. Problem Solving

“Research does show that exploring specially constructed puzzle toys leads to figuring out their solutions,” but it hasn’t been shown that pretend play generalizes to overall better problem-solving abilities.

The review gives a paragraph each to reasoning and “conservation” (the idea that objects can retain “core properties” even after surface transformations), and then write with an academic frown that, “The literature reviewed here does not support the view that pretend play is crucial for children’s cognitive development.”

But then let’s look at pretend play in social development. Surely pretend play creates an emotionally intelligent child! The article writes, “Pretending is perhaps a route to social skills, but without more convincing evidence it is equally feasible that social pretending and social skills emerge from [something else].”

The same gosh-darn thing is true of literacy and narrative: we’ve claimed that pretend play boosts literacy and the ability to shape narrative, but it could be equally true that pretend play simply marks kids who have or will have these abilities (there’s even a suggestion that pretend play may slow the onset of literacy: if you act a fantasy, you don’t need to write it).

And the inconclusive news continues with executive function and self-regulation. In fact, there is not one skill that this influential review is willing to attribute to pretend play; no one has shown (conclusively) that teaching pretend play increases stuff we might like to increase.

So the takeaway from this review is that rather than child-centered classrooms or parents who encourage whimsy, children should be treated like adults and expected to engage with learning and development in a more mature, logical, adult-centered way.

Not nearly.

“Developmental science does not support young children sitting in desks while teachers lecture at them,” the authors write. They go on: “Like pretend play, child-centered classrooms often provide free choice, interesting hands-on activities for which the child is intrinsically motivated, and peer interactions.”

Then they recommend recess, exercise, free play, and write that, “The hands-on, child-driven educational methods sometimes referred to as ‘playful learning’ are the most positive means yet known to help young children’s development.”

If pretend play is a bit equivocal, playful learning is not. We can’t say that teaching a child to pretend will help that child’s future, but we can show that teaching a child to explore the world with a playful eye will.

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