Pretend play may not drive child development as much as once thought
Using only the power of their imaginations,
children can transform a box into a boat,
or a living room into a peril-fraught jungle.
But while many famous theorists, including
Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, have
posited that pretending fuels children’s
intellectual and creative development, that may
not be the case, suggests University of Virginia
psychology professor Angeline Lillard, PhD,
online in Psychological Bulletin.
After reviewing 150 studies on pretend play
conducted over the last 50 years, Lillard and
her colleagues conclude that there’s no solid
evidence that pretend play leads to creativity,
problem-solving, intelligence, emotional
regulation, storytelling and other abilities.
Most studies on the topic, the researchers
found, suffered from methodological flaws.
“We enjoy pretending so much, we want it
to be a positive thing for child development,”
Lillard says. “Every time there is a glimmer of a
result, researchers really grab onto it and blow
University of Miami educational psychology professor
Doris Bergen, PhD, who wrote commentary on Lillard’s article,
agrees that past research on pretend play isn’t as robust as
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once thought. “Many of the studies that said they are studying
pretend play ... were really quite directive, with adults giving
children objects to play with and telling them what to do and
when to do it,” she says.
“Real pretend play often
happens far away from
adults, occurs spontaneously
and develops over the
course of hours or entire
While Bergen expects
that future research will
find academic benefits for
pretend play, she hopes
that psychologists won’t
lose sight of the fact that
having a rich inner life
may be its own reward.
“Pretend play doesn’t have
first try, researchers say.
to be educational to be
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