Value of Kids' Pretend Play May Be Overhyped

(Image credit: Dmitriy Shironosov | shutterstock)

Previous research has suggested that playing pretend is crucial to kids' mental development. But a new study challenges the strength of that link.

"We found no good evidence that pretend play contributes to creativity, intelligence or problem-solving," the study's author, Angeline Lillard, a psychologist at the University of Virginia (UVA), said in a statement. "However, we did find evidence that it just might be a factor contributing to language, storytelling, social development and self-regulation."

In the report, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, Lillard and her team reviewed more than 150 previous studies on the subject and found most of the evidence showed little or no correlation between playing make believe and children's mental development. Lillard explained in a statement from UVA that it's difficult to tell whether children who pretend are already creative and imaginative, or if pretending actually promotes development.

"When you look at the research that has been done to test that, it comes up really short," Lillard said. "It may be that we've been testing the wrong things; and it may well be that when a future experiment is really well done we may find something that pretend play does for development, but at this point these claims are all overheated."

The researchers note that the absence of pretend play in kids between 18 months and 2 years old could be a red flag for autism. And the study's authors say many elements of pretending and other types of play — making choices, negotiating with other kids and interacting with objects — are valuable for children and can help in the classroom.

"Playtime in school is important," Lillard added. "We found evidence that – when a school day consists mostly of sitting at desks listening to teachers – recess restores attention and that physical exercise improves learning."

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