A new study by University of Virginia, published online in the journal Psychological Bulletin states that pretend play is not as important to child development as researchers previously thought.

Pretend play can be any type of play using imagination to make toys talk or creating sounds coming from toys, or pretending to be in a fictional situation, such as cops and robbers or house. This play can occur when the child is playing by themselves, other children, or their parents and other adults.

40 years of studies have claimed that psychologists, teachers, and parents believe that pretend play is a normal and important part of a child’s healthy development. However, after the new study, beliefs on this topic may change.

For their study, University of Virginia researchers analyzed more than 150 previous studies to find the positive relationship between pretend play and the development of children’s mental health. They found minimum evidence supporting this notion.

Lead author Angeline Lillard, U.Va professor of psychology in the College of Arts & Sciences, says that the previous “evidence” claiming pretend play is directly associated with healthy child development is from “flawed methodology”. Whoever was writing this evidence may have raised children who played pretend and therefore they were biased about what was actually showing up on the results.

She continued:

“We found no good evidence that pretend play contributes to creativity, intelligence or problem-solving. However, we did find evidence that it just might be a factor contributing to language, storytelling, social development and self-regulation.”

Lillard says it is hard for psychologist to distinguish whether pretend play is a result of creative and imaginative behavior among the kids themselves, has been pushed by parents, or really helps development.

The professor adds:

“When you look at the research that has been done to test that, it comes up really short. 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. This is our conclusion from having really carefully read the studies.”

The researchers say that certain aspects of pretend play are important, such as children making their own choices and creating their own ideas, and cooperation with other kids.

If pretend play is not seen at all among children between a few months and 2 years of age, this may mean the child has autism, as these children should be tested for other indications of neurological disorder.

The authors note that a common problem in schools tends to be that teachers over-prepare kids for testing, for example, pushing playtime – which leads them to wonder if early childhood curricula in school should have a organized time for pretend play.

Lillard concludes: “Playtime in school is important. 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.”

When it comes to pretend play, the professor says: “If adults enjoy doing it with children, it provides a happy context for positive adult-child interaction, a very important contributor to children’s healthy development.”

Written by Christine Kearney