Special American Journal of Play Issue Probes Pretend Play

American Journal of Play News Release
One Manhattan Square Rochester, NY 14607 585-263-2700 museumofplay.org

November 15, 2013

For Immediate Release

Contact: Susan Trien, 585-410-6359, strien@thestrong.org
Shane Rhinewald, 585-410-6365, srhinewald@thestrong.org

Special Themed Issue of American Journal of Play

Probes Value of Pretend Play

ROCHESTER, New York—When a child crawls into a make-believe cave world underneath the covers, will she be spurring her intellectual, emotional, and social growth? Many scholars say yes, and consider play essential for a child’s full development. But how can we measure the positive influences of pretend play on a child’s well being? In a special issue of the American Journal of Play, some of the nation’s most distinguished cognitive psychologists and scholars of early childhood respond to that question.

Yale University pioneer play researchers Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer, who have published hundreds of studies about play over the last four decades, lead off this special issue. In a wide-ranging interview, they describe numerous benefits of pretend play. According to the Singers, children reach a milestone in their development when they begin playing imaginatively at around 18 months of age, as they start to use something other than an original object (like a box) to represent another (such as a car). Pretend play later confers special advantages; and, according to the Singers, “children who are not very good at make-believe differ significantly in their imaginations, social behavior, and aggression from children who are excellent make-believe players.” In the Singers’ view, play helps to develop vocabulary, flexibility, and large and small muscle control. Through play, kids also learn how to cooperate and share—if they expect to stay in the game. “And that’s a very important part of play for not only self-control, but for social behavior.”

With play becoming an increasingly hot-button scholarly issue, the Singers also say they would like to see “more graduate students getting involved in play studies, new ways of examining the whole phenomenon, and more research on effects of electronic media. How is the Internet really affecting children and their capacity to play? What positive things do we know about computer games and video games? Also, we’d like to see more funding made available for play research. The scarcity of such support today seriously concerns us.”

Also in this issue:

“Considering Counterfactuals” by Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology, and Caren Walker, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of California. The authors note the need for more empirical study of the popularly held idea that play contributes to learning. In this article, they concentrate on children’s developing minds, and show how as children play with scenarios counter to the truth, they exercise and improve their ability to acquire and revise abstract theories of cause-and-effect relationships in the world. This talent proves essential for problem-solving and learning. The authors review their own study in progress, which corroborates this thesis.        

“What Do We Know About Pretend Play and Narrative Development?” by Ageliki Nicolopoulou, professor of psychology at Lehigh University, and Hande Ilgaz, assistant professor in the Psychology Department of Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. The authors find solid evidence for the benefits of pretend play. Telling stories and acting them out helps children learn to organize facts as they cooperate and negotiate with others. Their research showed that fantasy playacting significantly improved children’s ability to recall detail. The authors also note opportunities to address unanswered questions in current research, among them, how adults can best act as catalysts for pretend play.

“Play and Self-Regulation: Lessons from Vygotsky” by Elena Bodrova, director for Research and Development at Tools of the Mind; Deborah J. Leong, professor emeritus of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver; and Carrie Germeroth, assistant director for research at Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy at the University of Denver. The authors observe an ominous decline in the quality of pretend play over the last decades, and find today’s children to be less patient and persistent in their play. Less “mature” play that is characteristic of today’s children causes a delay in developing crucial skills such as the regulation of emotions and what’s called “executive function” vital to developing working memory and problem-solving.

“Pretend Play and Creative Processes” by Sandra W. Russ, professor of psychology, and Claire E. Wallace, a doctoral candidate, Case Western University. The authors contend that pretend play in childhood affects the development of creativity in adulthood, and they call for further research to focus on specific processes in both play and creativity.

“Talking it Up: Play, Language Development, and the Role of Adult Support” by Deena Skolnick Weisberg, professor of psychology, University of Pennsylvania; Jennifer M. Zosh, assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies, Pennsylvania State University; Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, faculty fellow, Department of Psychology, Temple University; and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff,  professor of education, University of Delaware. The authors note the current state of U.S. education, which emphasizes drilling and testing over playing and exploring. When children are allowed to take the lead and genuinely enjoy their learning, outcomes can be equally as successful as in adult-controlled situations. They urge that curricula should “incorporate places where children can feel free to follow their own interests in partnership with teachers.”

Running on Empty? Observing Causal Relationships of Play and Development” by Paul L. Harris, professor of education, Harvard University, and Malak Jalloul, professor of psychology, University of Nantes. The authors challenge the notion, current in many schools, that because pretend play cannot beyond a doubt be proven to be crucial to development that it should be eliminated from the curriculum. Some activities like pretend play, they conclude, “are good in themselves.”

“Of Rigor, Replicability and Restraint in Play-Literacy Research” by Kathleen Roskos, professor of Education and Allied Studies at John Carroll University, and James Christie, professor of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. The authors critically examine the relationship of play and developing literacy, and find no doubt of a positive connection. Though the authors call for more research, they conclude that “current evidence is strong enough to position play in early literacy practice.”

“Role of Make-Believe Play in Development of Executive Function: Status of Research and Future Directions” by Laura E. Berk, professor of psychology, emerita, Illinois State University, and Adena B. Meyers, professor of psychology,  Illinois State University. The authors consider the association between pretend play and developing memory and problem-solving in young children. While calling for future investigation, they see particular potential in “encouraging but not controlling young people’s make-believe play.”

“Pretending to Play or Playing to Pretend: The Case of Autism” by Connie Kasari, professor of psychology, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies; Ya-Chih Chang, post-doctoral scholar, UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior; and Stephanie Patterson, doctoral candidate, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. The authors examine how play skills develop in children with autism and critique current “work-like” methods employed to teach them play. They conclude that improving pretense in these children may shed more light on the importance of play generally, and will yield clues especially of the causal impact of pretend play in the development of all children.

A panel of guest editors—Roberta Michnick Golinkoff (University of Delaware), Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (Temple University), Sandra W. Russ (Case Western Reserve University), and Angeline S. Lillard (University of Virginia)—helped assemble the distinguished scholars who contributed to the special issue.

The complete issue of the American Journal of Play, a publication of The Strong, can be accessed free online at www.journalofplay.org.