The Benefits of Pretend Play — and Why Parents Shouldn’t Play Along

Pretending is a common activity in childhood. If you were like me as a kid, you pretended all the time. I pretended to care for my stuffed animals, that the floor was hot lava, and that I was Disney characters, mostly Princess Jasmine.

But pretending isn’t all fun and games — it’s actually a complex cognitive activity that has profound influence on a child’s learning and social development.

When children pretend, they’re using something to stand for something else. When I pretended the floor was hot lava, the floor represented lava and the couches around my living room represented land that kept me safe. Using something to represent something else is a symbolic activity — just like using a map to navigate a city is a symbolic activity.

Although pretending is complex, children start to pretend on their own around 12-months of age and continue throughout childhood. Their pretense usually starts with simple acts, like pretending to put a baby doll to sleep, and then becomes more complex, like using objects to pretend (pretending a banana is a phone) or enacting social scenarios with other kids (playing cops and robbers).

The most important aspect of pretend play is that it provides children with a safe space to practice skills, imagine different situations and experience conflict without any real-word repercussions. Think about imaginary friends — children create their own companions that they can interact with in whatever way they want, which often includes unpleasant situations, like getting into arguments.

In a research paper in which children were interviewed about their imaginary friends, one child described her friend as an invisible, 7-inch tall elephant that wore a tank top and was sometimes mean to the child. Another child said her imaginary friend put yogurt in her hair.

Having an imaginary friend allows children to experience negative emotions like sadness and anger that have no actual retribution in the real world. And because these children make a safe space for themselves to experience these situations at a young age, they tend to have better social skills when they are older.

Research shows that children with imaginary friends tend to be more creative, outgoing and better at identifying and dealing with their emotions. Research also shows similar findings for children that engage in pretend play. Children’s pretend play predicts their creativity, social skills and their ability to understand other people’s feelings.

Children benefit from creating their own absurd and unpredictable imaginary worlds, so if parents interfere and try to guide their children’s pretense or conform it to reality, they can restrict their children’s creativity. Research shows there is a negative correlation between number of adults present in play area and the frequency and sophistication of children’s social pretend play. In other words, when there are more adults, children pretend less and their pretense is less creative.

Although children pretend play and imaginary friends may seem ridiculous to us, engaging in fantasy play is really awesome for children’s social and emotional development. As adults, we should do our best to encourage pretend play without interfering with it. Embrace the ridiculousness of your child’s pretend play, because it’s their way of learning how to behave in the real world.

Talk Baby to Me

You know when you see something really cute, like a kitten or a baby, and you instinctively talk to it with an embarrassingly high-pitched, singsong voice?

This phenomenon is called baby talk – or colloquially known as infant directed speech or motherese. It’s speech that is high-pitched, slow, exaggerated and emotionally positive or affectionate.

We all use baby talk when speaking to infants, children and other small adorable creatures. Baby talk is essentially universal to all languages, although English-speakers tend to use more exaggerated baby talk compared to other languages.

But baby talk is really strange, if you think about it. No one tells us we have to talk to young children and infants this way, so why do adults change the way they speak when talking to babies? Do babies actually benefit from this type of talk compared to normal, unemotional speech?

First, we use baby talk as adults because we realize that the little human we are talking to does not understand what we are saying. We know young infants don’t understand our speech yet, but because we want to communicate with them, we try to supplement our speech. We use emotional expressions and high-pitched speech to make the baby happy and engaged, and we use exaggerated, slow speech to grab and maintain the baby’s attention.

Our ultimate goal in using baby talk is to communicate our intention. When talking to infants, we may want to show the baby a toy, or show approval or disapproval. However, because we know young infants do not understand language yet, we try to convey our intentions using the acoustic sound of our voice.

Interestingly, research published in Science suggests that infant-directed speech does effectively communicate intentions, like approval, comfort and attention, even to speakers of a different language. Adults in a non-industrial, non-literate community in South America were able to classify English infant-directed speech by the intention conveyed in the acoustic sound. Because the participants did not speak English, the findings suggest that infant-directed speech may universally communicate the intention of the speaker, perhaps even to pre-verbal infants.

Second, babies actually prefer infant-directed speech and learn more from infant-directed speech compared to adult-directed speech. Research shows that within the first two months of life, infants show a strong preference for baby talk over adult-directed speech, and even prefer baby talk in a foreign language compared to adult-directed speech in a familiar language.

More importantly, research also shows that infant-directed speech may help infants early in the language learning process. Research shows that infant-directed speech helps six- and seven-month-old infants segment words from a string of speech. For infants who are learning their native language, speech is just a continuous string of sounds. Infants therefore must learn how to parse continuous speech into words, and then figure out how those words map onto objects and actions in the world. Because infant-directed speech is slow and exaggerated, it helps infants identify the beginning and ends of words better than adult-directed speech. In this way, baby talk is thought to promote language acquisition.

I find infant-directed speech so interesting because it benefits development without any added work on the part of the parents. Baby talk occurs naturally and babies enjoy it, which means they want to pay attention to it. In this sense, baby talk is effortless yet a powerful learning mechanism early in development.

Even though adults often feel foolish when using baby talk, it may be an important and essential part of the language acquisition process. Don’t be shy about using baby talk – babies love it, and (literally) almost everyone else on the planet is doing it.

Like Adults, Breaks are Good for Kids

We’ve all experienced the frustration of being in a mental rut. Whether you’re trying to think of a solution to a crossword puzzle, remember your grocery list, or write your dissertation, you’ve probably experienced the annoyance of trying to solve a problem with no avail, only to have the solution pop into your head later in an idle moment, like in the shower. In fact, Albert Einstein famously credited his Theory of Relativity to a revelation he had while chatting with a friend after weeks and weeks of working on his theorem.

Why do we often gain insight when stop trying? It may seem counterintuitive, but giving up when something is difficult can be beneficial, and even necessary, to help new ideas come to light. This is because taking a break makes you forget, which, oddly enough, is sometimes essential for learning new things.

When adults can’t solve a problem, it is often because they are fixated on the wrong answer or a bad strategy. This prevents them from considering different options and therefore discovering the solution. When they take a break, they forget whatever they were stuck on and are better able to solve the problem when they try again later. In fact, research shows that when adults try to solve brainteasers, such as anagrams, they are better at solving the problem when they are given a short break than if they continuously work on the problem.

Another reason forgetting is good for solving problems: When people forget, it takes more effort to remember what it is that they forget. Remembering what it is they forgot is more difficult, but actually leads to more potent learning.

For example, research shows that people are better at learning vocabulary when learning is spaced out over hours or days rather than clumped together. This is why teachers always told you to study weeks leading up to a test rather than just the night before, even though you never did it.

Most important, recent research, including my own, suggest the benefits of taking a break also extends to children. Research from Haley Vlach, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison shows that when three-year-olds are asked to learn the name of a novel object, children are better able to learn that word and generalize that word to other instances of that object when word-learning is spaced out by 30-seconds. My dissertation research at Northwestern shows that when three-year-olds have to use a map to find a hidden object in a room, they are better at using that map when they get a five-minute break in between searching compared to if they search continuously.

In both of these studies, a break gives children a chance to forget. Children may forget what they were stuck on (in my study, children get stuck searching in the same location), and they also may forget how to use the map or what the word for the object was. So when they’re presented with the word or map again, they’re prompted to think about what they previously learned.

Pausing, forgetting, and challenging children to think ultimately results in more learning.

It’s important for parents and teachers to remember that learning is not always linear. Experiencing setbacks in learning are often beneficial to kids’ development. Letting children struggle, encouraging them to take breaks, and giving them multiple opportunities to learn (and forget) can in fact lead to more robust learning.

Can Children Learn from iPads?

If you’ve been to a restaurant in the past five years, you’ve most likely seen a toddler swiping away on an iPhone or an iPad, and most likely that toddler could navigate that device better than your mom. In fact, a nationwide 2013 survey showed that 75 percent of children aged eight years and younger have access to a touch-screen device, and on average use that device for 15 minutes or more daily.

The widespread use of touch screen devices — especially by young children — begs a few questions: How does touch-screen device use early in life influence development? Do children learn better or worst from mobile games and e-books compared to traditional games and books? Are there any negative impacts for child development?

A couple years ago, I became interested in these questions and decided to write the paper that qualifies me into Ph.D candidacy on whether children could learn from iPads. That meant I spent my summer digging through the literature on children’s learning from television, as well as the growing literature on children’s learning from interactive touch-screen devices and e-books.

The results I found were a mixed bag.

Children do not always learn from screens

There is a lot of research showing that children aged one to four years do not learn as well from screens as they do from adults. For example, research shows that when children are asked to imitate a behavior or learn a new word, they learn better when someone is telling them to their face compared to that same person telling them on a television screen.

To be sure, that doesn’t mean that children don’t learn from television — in fact, cartoons like “Dora The Explorer” have adapted to be more like a face-to-face interaction — it just means they don’t learn as well. This is especially true if they are 1.5 to 2 years of age, which is when the “video deficit” peaks. Because touch-screens are screens, children may not learn as much from touch-screen devices either.

Also, recent research on children’s learning from e-books suggests that children don’t learn as much from e-books compared to traditional books. Research from my colleague here at Northwestern suggests parents may be somewhat to blame for this. When reading an e-book together, parents of two to five year olds are more likely to point out cool features of the e-book, such as sound effects, rather than talking about the content of the story.

Another study shows that traditional books — or e-books with the electronic features turned off — promote more content-focused reading and conversation between parents and three to five year-olds compared to e-books.

Lastly, the “educational” apps and games for touch-screen devices are not necessarily educational. A recent article by a group of psychologists and learning scientists reviewed some of the 80,000 apps labeled as “educational” available for purchase, and almost none of them were regulated or tested for educational content. Just because an app contains letters, numbers or shapes, doesn’t mean it’s educational, and it certainly doesn’t mean that children are learning from it.

But wait, there’s good news …

Despite the evidence that touch-screen devices may not promote learning, there is evidence that the interactive aspect of the experience does indeed help children learn from them because they respond instantaneously to the child’s touch.

Unlike television, where children are passively watching a screen, touch-screen devices allow children to interact with the screen in an intuitive way. One study shows that interacting with a screen promotes learning compared to passively watching a screen. In this study, children who interacted with the screen learned just as much as those who learned from an adult. One exciting possibility is that the interactivity of touch-screen devices will help children bypass the video deficit effect, helping them learn from screen media.

This next point is obvious but important: Children love touch-screen devices. In our lab, we’ve conducted multiple studies on children’s use of iPads. One consistent finding is that children are more engaged with iPads compared to traditional 2-D pictures or books. Touch-screens definitely capture children’s attention; children easily focus on the objects or pictures displayed on the screen. One potential benefit of touch-screen devices is that they naturally grab children’s attention, hopefully drawing children’s attention toward the content on the screen and promoting learning.

It may be easier for parents and educators to leverage children’s learning from touch-screen devices because children are so naturally engaged when using them. In fact, another recent study by psychologists at the University of Chicago showed that a “Bedtime Math” app helped first graders learn math concepts across the school year. For something like math that isn’t super exciting to many kids, learning on a touch screen may help children focus more on the math content and even enjoy it.

So where does that bring us?

Well, we don’t really know yet, but we do know enough to be more informed consumers and to be aware of certain ways that we can maximize children’s potential learning from iPads.

Here are my tips for parents:

1.) Ask yourself – is this game/app educational? The group of psychologists and learning scientists who reviewed the educational apps also created an evidence-based guide for evaluating and selecting apps. They instruct parents to select apps that promotes active, engaged, meaningful, and social interactive learning. Play the app or game yourself and ask, are the activities in this game meaningful to learning, or is it just another fast-paced, flashy game?

2.) Be aware of how you use touch-screens with you children. When using e-books, make sure the questions you’re asking your child are about the story and not about the touch-screen. When using games, you can sit with your child and ask them to show you how to play the game. Ask them questions while they’re playing to see what they are taking away from the game.

3.) Supplement play with touch-screens, don’t replace it. It’s great if your child likes playing Angrybirds or doing puzzles on the touch-screen, but we don’t know yet if this type of play is as beneficial as traditional play, like block building, puzzle play, and pretend play. Play games on the touch-screen with your child and make explicit connections with toys they play with in the real world (“Is that a triangle on the screen, Ben? Is it just like the triangle we play with in our blocks?”)

It’s super exciting that we have new technology that is both intuitive and engaging for young children to use. However, while research is still emerging, it’s important that we do our best to make informed decisions about children’s use of that technology based on scientific evidence.

Give Them a Boost

As I sat in my brother’s living room holding my eight-day-old nephew for the first time, my brother Brenton asked me a question: “What can I do now to give him a boost?”

It’s a question many parents of preschoolers who visit our Developmental Psychology lab at Northwestern University ask. “What else can I do to make sure my Bobby is learning the most that he can?”

Even though I’ve interacted with many parents wanting the inside scoop on their child’s developmental needs plenty of times before, the question sounded especially ridiculous coming from my brother. After all, this was his eighth day as a father; his lack of sleep probably had his head in weird places. He had other things to worry about, I thought — diaper changing, constant crying, and, of course, the potential for projectile poop (all parents are familiar with projectile poop).

The fact that he was focused on giving his newborn son a developmental edge this early in his life seemed to me at first a bit odd. But the more I thought about it, there were things, even small things, my brother could be doing right now and throughout the early years of his son’s life to promote development.

In short, my brother’s question inspired me to create this blog for three reasons:

1.) It’s an important question. It goes without saying that optimizing children’s learning has profound implications for not only a child’s individual development, but also for our educational system and society at large.

2.) It’s an answerable question. We have lots of scientific research on child development (e.g., language development, spatial development, social development), and this research studies children of different ages, sometimes over long periods of time. There is really good evidence on how children learn, and most of these studies have direct implications for education and parenting.

Most important, the reason I started this blog because …

3.) The research that provides answers to this question isn’t well circulated. I’ve been in academia long enough to be painfully aware of the disconnect between the research that is produced and the communication of those findings to the general public. Academics do great research, and much of it is published in highly regarded journals.

But most of these journals don’t make their way to the coffee tables of people like my brother, who, now with newborn in tow, has no time to sit and parse through dense academic parlance to determine which bits and pieces of that information might be helpful for his child’s early development.

This is where I come in and hopefully play a role busy parents and others will appreciate.

My goal is to take the scientific research that I’ve spent more than five years studying and to translate it into information that can be consumed by and used by educators, parents and others who are curious about child development.

That being said, I am not a parent or an educator — I am a scientist (well, a social scientist). I am not qualified to write a parenting blog, and I don’t intend to tell you how to raise your children. I do intend to provide scientifically based information that can have implications for parents and teachers.

It is also important to note that while I will discuss and reference scientific research, this blog represents my interpretation of that research. Many researchers interpret objective research in different ways, so while I will always provide sources for my claims, they ultimately represent my own take on the research.

One final important disclaimer: The research I write about is valid, but there is a lot of variability in how children learn; not every method is going to significantly impact the development of every child. My hope is to translate the lessons we can learn from this research to a practical level.

So, how did I answer my brother’s question? I did what every good sister probably does: I sent him lecture slides from about a quarter of the Developmental Psychology course I taught last year at Loyola University, Chicago. That should get him started.

Now if I could only help him to dodge projectile poop.