Pretty regularly I see posts in online parenting groups saying “My child loves to pretend, and they always want me to participate. I dare not tell anyone else, but I CAN’T STAND PRETEND PLAY. What should I do?”
In this final (unless something else catches my interest!) episode in our extended series on play, Dr. Ansley Gilpin of the University of Alabama helps us to do a deep dive into what children learn from pretend play, and specifically what they learn from fantasy play, which is pretend play regarding things that could not happen in real life (like making popcorn on Mars).
We’ll discuss the connection between fantasy play and children’s executive function, the problems with studying fantasy play, and the thing you’ve been waiting for: do you HAVE to do fantasy play with your child if you just can’t stand it (and what to do instead!)
If you missed other episodes in this series, you might want to check them out: we started out asking “what is the value of play?”, then we looked at the benefits of outdoor play and talked with Dr. Scott Sampson about his book How to Raise a Wild Child. We wrapped up with outdoor play by trying to understand whether we should allow our children to take more risks.
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Carlson, S.M., White, R.E., & Davis-Unger, A.C. (2014). Evidence for a relation between executive function and pretense representation in preschool children. Cognitive Development 29, 1-16.
Gilpin, A.T., Brown, MM., & Pierucci, J.M. (2015). Relations between fantasy orientation and emotion regulation in preschool. Early Education and Development 26(7), 920-932.
Hirsh-Pasek, K., Weisberg, D.S., & Golinkoff, R.M. (2013). Embracing complexity: Rethinking the relation between play and learning: Comment on Lillard et al. (2013). Psychological Bulletin 139(1), 35-39.
Hoffman, J.D., & Russ, S.W. (2016). Fostering pretend play skills and creativity in elementary school school girls: A group play intervention. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 10(1), 114-125.
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Li, J., Hestenes, L.L., & Wang, Y.C. (2016). Links between preschool children’s social skills and observed pretend play in outdoor childcare environments. Early Childhood Education Journal 44, 61-68.
Lillard, A. (2011). Mother-child fantasy play. In A. D. Pelligrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play (pp. 284–295). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Lillard, A.S., Lerner, M.D., Hopkins, E.J., Dore, R.A., Smith, E.D., & Palmquist, C.M. (2013). The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence. Psychological Bulletin 139(1), 1-34.
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Jen: [00:38] Hello and welcome to today’s episode of your parenting Mojo. We’ve done a number of episodes by now in our series on the importance of play and I think this actually might be the last of them for a while. We started out by asking what is the value of play, and then we looked at the benefits of outdoor play and we talked with Dr Scott Sampson about his book, How to Raise a Wild Child. Then we wrapped up with outdoor play by trying to understand whether we should allow our children to take more risks. As we finish this whole series on play, I wanted to look at a question that comes up a lot in parenting groups that I’m in, which is: “my child loves fantasy play, but I just can’t stand it. What do I do?” So in this episode we’re going to try and get to the bottom of whether fantasy play really is important to a child’s development and what you can do if you just can’t stand it either.
Jen: [01:24] So to help us think through these things. I’m here today with Dr Ansley Gilpin, who is an associate professor at the University of Alabama and a developmental psychologist whose research focuses on cognitive development in early childhood, so between about ages three and eight, specifically with a focus on executive functions and imagination as well as development of academic and socioemotional skills. Dr Gilpin is exploring the potential mediation effect of executive functions on school readiness intervention outcomes as well as long term intervention effects on cognitive development. Welcome Dr. Gilpin.
New Speaker: [01:57] Thank you for having me.
Jen: [01:59] All right, so let’s start all the way at the beginning here. I wonder if you could define for us what is fantasy play.
Dr. Gilpin: [02:06] So when we talk about fantasy play in research and when I observed children doing it in their natural day to day lives I’m talking about is a type of pretend play that children tend to do on their own, which involves them pretending something that they don’t experience in everyday life. So differentiated from pretending to be a mommy or pretending to cook or pretending to go to the movies. So with fantasy play they are pretending something that they have not experienced before, like making popcorn on the moon.
Jen: [02:45] Oh Wow. Okay. So that, that’s a very important distinction there. So pretend play is one thing and fantasy play is another thing as far as the research is concerned, then?
Dr. Gilpin: [02:56] Pretty much. Fantasy play as a type of pretend.
Jen: [02:59] Okay. Okay Great. So there has been a fair bit of research done on the benefits of fantasy play on children’s development. And when I read in the popular press about fantasy play, I see these general assumptions that are made that fantasy play is really critical for children’s development. And I know that there was a meta-analysis done, which is a study that looks at a lot of different studies and tries to understand what’s the overall direction of the evidence and you weren’t involved in that study, but I know that you’ve commented on it and your work as well, but that method analysis examined theoretical ways that fantasy play could influence a child’s development and those kind of varied from fantasy play having a critical role to being an index rather than a promoter of development to a fantasy play. Kind of coinciding with other aspects of development but not really being that important. And I was really surprised to find in that paper that the research really doesn’t support the position that fantasy play is critical to the majority of aspects of children’s development, but the far larger problem, but most of the research has such a huge methodological problems that it’s hard to say much more than fantasy play might be linked with some aspects of children’s development. I wonder if you could kind of comment on the general status of the literature and your view of it.
Dr. Gilpin: [04:14] Yes. So this is one exciting part of this research, so with Dr Lillard she and her colleagues demonstrated was going through all of the research on pretense, pretend, play, imaginative play, fantasy, play, all those different types of play that are really very similar and looking to see whether or not there was research to show that really it was causal in facilitating development and part of the excitement is that we don’t know the answer to that yet and we don’t have a lot of support to show that it’s actually causing development to occur or that it is absolutely critical for development and it may not be; it may just be to her point related to development or it may enhance development. It may just develop at the same time as other skills. So we really don’t know. And as we improve on methodology and improve on our physiological measurements and biological measurements and our ability to observe naturalistic play and get multiple measures, that’s really going to help us be able to make those decisions. And so really as the research skill technique and equipment evolves, we will evolve with this question.
Jen: [05:42] Okay. Yeah. And I did wonder to what extent, the way that we attempt to study pretend play is part of the reason that we’re not finding these significant effects. Because when you actually go into some of the studies that are included in that meta-analysis and you look at the methodology, you see the researchers are often going to put children in a lab and they asked them to do some kind of specific task and then they say, okay, now let’s pretend with this specific toy that I’m giving you and you have to do it in this way. And so firstly, I wonder, is it possible that researchers don’t differentiate between pretend and fantasy play in the way that you just did? And secondly, children engaging in fantasy play at home: it’s the child that says, “Mom, I’m going to make popcorn on the moon.” It’s not me that saying that. So how much of this is an artifact of the researcher telling the child how to play?
Dr. Gilpin: [06:29] Right? And so I recently got a grant from the Templeton Foundation to work on that. And so what we did is we really help define the different types of play and that’s going to be important going forward just as you said, so that we’re not combining types of play when we study and confusing them and also then how we’re measuring them. So we created a measurement that parents can report on. So as a parent myself and having interviewed literally thousands of children, they say whatever pops into their head half the time and they’re not good at giving you the last six months, what was it? What did they like to do? They tell you their favorite thing was what they did five minutes ago. That’s just part of their memory development. And so it’s really going to be very interesting as the methodology changes and improves. And that is somewhat technology and somewhat learning. Developmental Science psychology is really early science and so we’re really learning as we go and it’s really exciting.
Jen: [07:32] Yeah. Yeah. And I think that’s very strange for non-scientists like me to understand that this is relatively new landscape. If things that there aren’t better answers to a lot of these questions yet when we’ve been studying them for 20 or 30 years and in fact that’s not long enough to really fully understand them yet. Yeah. So one of the things that I thought was really cool coming out of that paper that you mentioned by Dr Lillard was published in 2013 and then you and your colleagues really took that and said, okay, well yes, we acknowledge the methodology and some of these papers isn’t great, so let’s see how we can do better. And so you’ve published a paper showing there’s a correlation between fantasy orientation and executive function and I wonder if you can tell some more about that please.
Dr. Gilpin: [08:17] Sure. So the correlational research, to be honest, doesn’t get us very far, but it’s our first stepping stone. Right? So it just says that when children participate in more fantasy play that either we can measure by directly observing the child or their parent or their teacher tells us that they are higher in fantasy play or pretend play than some of the other kids and then this particular paper that we were talking about fantasy play, so the experiences they haven’t done before. What we found was that correlated with children who had higher what we call executive functions. So those are basic cognitive skills that have something to do with your intelligence and your ability to process, so things like your ability to inhibit and your ability to pay attention and shift your attention when you need to. Your ability to engage your working or short term memory, and I’m using that right now as I try to remember the executive function…
Dr. Gilpin: [09:16] Your ability to plan and organize, which is a little bit later than the toddler years, but those are all skills that are related to how much a child participated in fantasy play. And we measured this in two ways. Both in how much they participated according to their teachers and their parents as well as how much they could show us that they could do it. So how imaginative was it really as well as their, what we call propensity towards play. So parents may have noticed, some children just really like to engage in imaginative or fantasy play and some children really don’t seem to do that very much and that seems to be an individual difference that we can measure in personality later in adulthood. And you can think about it in terms of yourself as well; whether or not you liked to go to see movies that are more imaginative, more fantastical, whether you can keep open the possibility that there might be extra-terrestrials possibly trying to be a super weirdo. Some examples here versus people who would much rather see a movie about a scientist or about mathematics.
Jen: [10:36] So a number of points came up here. Firstly, if my husband’s listening to this interview, which he does occasionally when they published and he’s going to be laughing as he...