Imaginary play is not the be all, end all for preschoolers. So say researchers at the University of Virginia (U.Va) in a study published online in the journal Psychological Bulletin. While pretend play may be fun, it's apparently not as crucial to a child's development as previously thought.
This is a pretty big turn-around in the world of early childhood education, which held for decades that imaginary play was a vital contributor in a child's healthy mental development.
So, though your child may enjoy making her Barbie and Ken dolls converse, it's not actually feeding her intellect.
Having reviewed more than 150 studies, researchers at U.Va found little or no correlation between intellectual development and pretend play.
"We found no good evidence that pretend play contributes to creativity, intelligence or problem-solving," said Angeline Lillard, the new study's lead author and a U.Va. professor of psychology in the College of Arts & Sciences. "However, we did find evidence that it just might be a factor contributing to language, storytelling, social development and self-regulation."
Lillard likened it to a chicken-egg scenario: with psychologists finding it difficult to ascertain whether imaginary play made children more creative and imaginative, or whether possessing those qualities led children to engage in this form of play.
"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 ... but at this point these claims are all overheated."
However, as Lillard pointed out, various elements of pretend play—from making choices and pursuing individual interests, negotiating with peers and physical interaction with real objects—are certainly valuable. So Montessor schools stressing such individual pursuits can breathe easy.
Not least of which because a marked absence of naturally occurring pretend play for children between 18 months and 2 years old may indicate the incidence of a neurological disorder, such as autism.
So while imaginary play may not boost your child's development in the ways previously held, it certainly important as it "provides a happy context for positive adult-child interaction," which in itself is crucial to a child's healthy development.