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The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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[This post was co-authored with Jerome L. Singer and Dorothy G. Singer]

Many people often think of play in the form of images of young children at recess engaging in games of tag, ball, using slides, swings, and physically exploring their environments. But physical play is not the only kind of play. We often use the terms pretend play or make-believe play (the acting out of stories which involve multiple perspectives and the playful manipulation of ideas and emotions), that reflect a critical feature of the child’s cognitive and social development. Over the last seventy-five years a number of theorists and researchers have identified the values of such imaginative play as a vital component to the normal development of a child.

Systematic research has increasingly demonstrated a series of clear benefits of children’s engagement in pretend games from the ages of about two and one half through ages six or seven. Actual studies have demonstrated cognitive benefits such as increases in language usage including subjunctives, future tenses, and  adjectives. The important concept of “theory of mind,” an awareness that one’s thoughts may differ from those of other persons  and that there are a variety of perspectives of which each of us is capable, is closely related to  imaginative play (Jenkins & Astington, 2000; Leslie, 1987; Singer & Singer, 1990; Singer & Singer, 2005).

Psychologist Sandra Russ (2004) identified a number of different cognitive and affective processes that are associated with pretend play. Her research dealing with play involves  fantasy, make-believe, symbolism, organization, cognitive integration of seemingly separate content, and divergent thinking (the ability to come up with many  different ideas, story themes, and symbols). Pretend play allows the expression of both positive and negative feelings, and the modulation of affect, the ability to integrate emotion with cognition (Jent, Niec, & Baker, 2011; Seja, & Russ, 1999; Slade and Wolf, 1999).

The research reviewed by Berk, Mann & Ogan, (2006) and Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Berk, & Singer (2009) suggest that make-believe games are forerunners of the important capacity for forms of self-regulation including reduced aggression, delay of gratification, civility, and empathy. When children use toys to  introduce possible scenarios or friends, the representation of multiple perspectives occurs naturally. Taking on different roles allows children the unique opportunity to learn social skills such as communication, problem solving, and empathy (Hughes, 1999).

An important  benefit of early pretend play may be its enhancement of the child’s capacity for cognitive flexibility and, ultimately, creativity (Russ, 2004; Singer & Singer, 2005). Russ, for example, in longitudinal  studies, found that early imaginative play was associated with increased creative performance years later (Russ, 2004; Russ, & Fiorelli,  2010). Root-Bernstein’s research with clearly creative individuals such as Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant  awardees, indicated  that early childhood  games about make-believe worlds were more frequent in such individuals than in control participants in their fields (Root-Bernstein, 2012).

What are the sources in children’s environments that promote early and frequent imaginative play? Research has demonstrated that parents who talk to their children regularly explaining features about nature and social issues, or who read or tell stories at bedtime seem to be most likely to foster pretend play (Shmukler  1981; Singer & Singer  2005). A school atmosphere in which pretend games are encouraged, or even just tolerated in the curriculum or recess play of children has also been shown to  lead  to  even greater amounts of imaginativeness and enhanced curiosity, and  to learning skills in preschoolers or early school-agers (Ashiabi , 2007; Singer and Lythcott 2004) . Indeed, educators are using pretend games to teach math and reading (Clements, & Sarama, 2009; Ginsburg, 2006).

A key question that arises from the literature is how parent and teacher training in “guided play” may influence literacy. Singer and colleagues conducted a series of studies on the effectiveness of Learning through Play, an intervention program designed to teach parents and educators how to engage in learning-oriented, imaginative play games with children (Singer, Plaskon, & Schweder, 2003). In the initial evaluation of the program kindergarten children of low-SES parents who participated in the intervention showed significant gains on an academic readiness assessment than those whose parents did not participate. Modest improvements were found in subcomponents of the test, including vocabulary, knowledge about nature, general information knowledge, and knowledge about manners. In another curriculum, Tools of the Mind, inspired by Vygotsky’s theory, scaffolding of cognitive control is woven into virtually all classroom activities (Bodrova, 2008).  For example, teachers encourage complex make-believe play, guiding children in jointly planning of play scenarios before enacting them. Teachers also lead rule-switching games in which regular movement patterns shift often, requiring flexibility of attention.

Perhaps the idea of a built-in ‘pretend play recess’  during the regular school day—where children can get together and explore an infinite amount of possible combinations of ideas, emotions, and perspectives—will one day be just as acceptable as traditional, but no less important, forms for recess and play.

About the Co-Authors

Dr. Jerome L. Singer is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University. He received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology in 1950 from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as training as a Psychoanalyst. He is a specialist in research on the psychology of imagination and daydreaming. Dr. Singer has authored articles on thought processes, imagery, personality, and psychotherapy, as well as on children’s pretend play and the effects of television.

Dr. Dorothy G. Singer is Senior Research Scientist Emeritus, Department of Psychology, Yale University. She is also Co-Director of the Yale University Family Television Research and Consultation Center; Fellow, Morse College; and Fellow of The American Psychological Association. She co-directs the Electronic Media and Families Unit of the Zigler Center. Her research interests include early childhood development and television effects on youth.  She consults with parent groups, television industry personnel and government agencies concerning television and education. She has written and developed  parent and teacher training materials for day care centers  and media literacy materials for  educating children to be critical users of television. In 2006, she was recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award from Teachers College, Columbia University. In 2009 she received the Award for Distinguished  Lifetime Contributions to Media Psychology from the American Psychological Association.


Ashiabi, G.S. (2007). Play in the preschool classroom: Its socioemotional significance and the teacher’s role in play. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35, 199-207.

Bodrova, E. (2008). Make-Believe play versus academic skills: A Vygotskian approach to today’s dilemma of early childhood education. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal16, 357-369.

Berk, L. E., Mann, T.D., & Ogan, A.T. (2006).  Make-Believe play:  Wellspring for development of self-regulation.  In D. Singer, R.M. Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Play =Learning:  How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. New York, NY:  Oxford University Press.

Clements, D.H. & Sarama. J. (2009). Learning and teaching early math:  The learning trajectories approach. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ginsburg, H. P. (2006). Mathematical play and playful mathematics: A guide for early education. In D. Singer, R. M. Golinkoff, & K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Play = learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth (pp. 145-68). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA.

Hirsh-Pasek, K. Golinkoff, R.M., Berk, L.E., & Singer. D.G. (2009). A mandate for playful learning in preschool: Presenting the evidence. New York: Oxford  University Press.

Hughes, F.P. (1999). Children, play, and development (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Jenkins, J.M., & Astington, J.W. (2000). Theory of mind and social behavior: Casual models tested in a longitudinal study. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 46, 203-220.

Jent, J.F., Niec, L.N., & Baker, S.E. (2011). Play and interpersonal processes. In S.W. Russ &  L.N. Niec (Eds.), Play in clinical practice: Evidence-based approaches. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Leslie, A.M. (1987). Pretense and representation: The origins of “theory of mind.” Psychological Review, 94, 412-426.

Root-Bernstein, M. ( 2012). The creation of imaginary worlds. In M. Taylor (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Russ, S.W. (2004).  Play in child development and psychotherapy. Mahwah, NJ: Earlbaum.

Russ, S. & Fiorelli, J. (2010) Developmental Approaches to Creativity. In J . Kaufman & R. Sternberg (Eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity, 233-249. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shmukler, D. (1981).  Mother-child interaction and its relationship to the predisposition of imaginative play.  Genetic Psychology Monographs, 104, 215-235.

Seja, A.L., & Russ, S.W. (1999). Children’s fantasy play and emotional understanding. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 28, 269-277.

Singer, D. G. & Singer, J. L. (1990).  The house of make believe:  Children’s play and the developing imagination. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Singer, D.G.& Singer, J.L. (2005). Imagination and play in the electronic age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Singer, D. G., Singer, J. L., Plaskon, S. L., & Schweder, A. E. (2003). The role of play in the preschool curriculum. In S. Olfman (Ed.), All work and no play: How educational reforms are harming our preschoolers. (pp. 43-70). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Singer, J.L. & Lythcott, M.A. (2004).  Fostering school achievement and creativity through sociodramatic play in the classroom.  In E. F. Zigler, D.G. Singer & S. J. Bishop-Joseph (Eds.) Children’s play: The roots of reading, pp. 77-93. Washington DC: Zero to Three Press.

Slade, S & Wolf, D. P.(1999). Play: Clinical and developmental approaches to meaning and representation, Oxford University Press).


This post originally appeared at Psychology Today.

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. bucketofsquid 5:35 pm 11/19/2013

    What about those of us that still pretend play at age 50?

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  2. 2. WizeHowl 6:22 am 11/22/2013

    bucketofsquid I agree with you whole heartedly at 55 I still like to pretend play with my 6 yr old grandson, who has a fantastic imagination and I keep encouraging him to use it every chance I get.

    What a dull place we would live in with out our imaginations! Just think where Science would be today if it not for the those former young minds having been able to “pretend play” and use their imaginations and grow up into Scientist and Engineers and such, or even how boring it would be without great poets and writers.

    I for one hope to never grow out of “pretend play”!

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  3. 3. eurotimbr 6:48 pm 11/22/2013

    “low SES parents” – what does SES mean? I suppose I could guess, but I prefer not to.

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  4. 4. Sanctum 3:23 am 11/26/2013

    Besides, if we discover the question even deeper, using the knowledge of what a thought is, we will find another great quality of “pretend play” – it actually has an influence on our reality, to be more concrete: it is rebuilding our reality. The way the reality is being rebuilt depends on the thought itself. If the thought is positive – the reality will become more positive, and vice versa.
    I will add this to let you understand a bit more: at higher levels of the skill of using thoughts to create the reality every thought would creat 100% similar reality. So, help your grand-/children to create as positive thoughts as positive :) And don’t forget to do this yourself!

    Your reality is a lot of what You think of it.

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  5. 5. Alexandradavidson 2:25 pm 01/5/2014

    This is a really great article, and supported by sound research. I went to a Waldorf Steiner school, which encourages free and imaginative play and delays formal education until 6/7yrs (the age a child’s brain can begin to focus attention on cognitive tasks and reasoning). Many people do not understand the benefits of nurturing creativity and imagination and the impact it has on fostering a sense of empathy, self regulation and communication and social skills, amongst many others. Too much emphasis in the UK education system is put on cognitive testing at an early age, when children are not developmentally ready to learn through formal education. Play is an incredibly powerful teaching tool for young children.

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