Of course, children prefer scooping and eating real ice cream to playing with wooden cones adorned with pretend sparkles. They would like to drive real cars, too.
But just because children prefer the real deal, as research by Angeline Lillard of the University of Virginia shows, that does not negate the value of make-believe and toy play. In fact, scientific studies give us reason to believe that play serves an important role in helping children practice the storytelling skills that will build strong readers, in helping kids learn new vocabulary as in the phrase knights in shining armor who defend the castle walls, and even in preparing for STEM disciplines.
Lillard and I visited an indoor play space in Taipei where children were playing make-believe with a variety of toys. While Lillard writes that she saw a child who seemed bored scooping pretend ice cream, I saw a range of wonderful activities beyond wooden ice cream cones.
There were rideable little cars powered by toddler feet that took children to pretend gas stations. The little guys in those cars got to navigate around the play space floor as they headed to refuel. They had to map out where they were going. There were levers that could be carefully placed at particular slopes to send balls rolling down inclines and puzzles that helped children rotate and transform objects to fit into specific locations.
Our research shows that these children are engaged in the kind of playful spatial activities that will prepare them for mathematics when they begin formal schooling.
Pretend play might also allow children to more clearly focus on the overarching story line than would be possible in real life. Those kids eating the real ice cream that is leaking out of the bottom of the cone are focusing only on the drips. In contrast, the pretend ice cream store prompted preschoolers to categorize the scoops as they carefully replace the green “mint” flavored pieces in the bin to the left and the brown chocolate “ice cream” in the bin to the right. In the pretend store, children take our play money and even give us play change from the cash register.
They are indeed learning about role play, practicing a script for buying a cone and even getting a bit of math — not that they got the change right. Lillard herself has argued that stronger language skills were a real outcome of pretend play.
No doubt, Lillard is making a broader and an important point, which is that make-believe is only a part of what it takes to grow up and to learn life skills. Real experiences are critical, and we should indeed allow kids more opportunity to ride on ponies, to see the cross sections of real cut-up veggies, and to talk on real phones.
But giving our children these experiences does not negate the joy of make-believe or the value of play. Play — yes, even make-believe — enhances developmental experiences. Let’s not throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek is a professor at Temple University and a researcher with the Brookings Institution.
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