We live in a very complicated world and according to a randomized control trial, pre-schoolers who play pretend regularly are better equipped to turn their thoughts into actions.
These actions are then organized to set and achieve goals. Those with higher executive function are able to not only think about what they’d like to do, but put those thoughts in an order that best helps them reach the end goal.
This recent study was compiled of 15-minute intervals of playtime spread over a five week period. In each session, a group containing 39 children from the ages of three to five were read a script taking them on a visual journey to places such as the moon. At the five week mark, the kids part of the play sessions showed improvement in their ability to memorize number lists they were given. This test is a working memory test that has been used for years as a way to test executive function.
The scores were compared to a set of 32 children all within the same age range who over the previous five weeks had taken part in play sessions of singing songs and passing a ball, who did not show as large of improvements. The visual journey children also showed a greater improvements in their scores when it came to switching their attention between two tasks. In this case, children were asked to sort blocks based on their color and then switch to organizing them by shape. Not only did the children using their imaginations regularly have scores that increased over time, but the group who were part of a more standard type of play had scores that decreased over the five week period.
The part of this study that stood out most to researchers was found in their third test to measure executive function, which they labeled ‘inhibition of responses’. In this test, children were asked to call a nighttime scene ‘day’ and a daytime scene ‘night’. The pretend play children were not affected by this problem.
Researchers believe pretend play helps children improve their mental abilities because they are being taught to switch between imagination and reality. They recognize they are not truly a princess or dragon so when it’s time to return to default norms of behavior, they do so without a hitch. Rachel Thibodeau, lead author, and her colleagues believe the fantastical elements of pretend play develop executive function because they involve managing and organizing very unique scripts and visualizations. These children are also typically more likely to believe in things such as the Tooth Fairy or Santa Clause.
Interestingly enough, when these two test groups were compared to children who took part in neither form of play and simply completed tests at the end of the five week period, their numbers ranked in the center of the other play groups. While there are still questions regarding what the results from test group three mean, there is one thing that can come from this study: imaginative play is an important part of a child’s life and does improve cognitive development.
Study has been published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.