Pretend play is a charming activity. Children pretend that their living room is a restaurant where they prepare and serve food, or they imagine the tree outside is a castle. American parents serve this activity by purchasing toys to support it ($20 billion worth last year), and most think pretending is very important to children’s development. But the evidence on the latter point is actually quite weak. Pretend play is a wonderful display of the human imagination and our ability to make and use symbols, but its developmental benefit to children is a cultural assumption.
When I got back to the States, my student Jess Taggart and my lab manager M.J. Heise designed a simple study to find out what children prefer: pretend or real. We selected nine activities that some children have toys to pretend about, but that children can feasibly also do for real: eat ice cream, ride a horse, go fishing, cut up vegetables, give a baby a bottle, talk on the telephone, and so on. We found photographs of boys and girls doing each activity, for pretend and for real. For each pretend-real photo pair, we tried to match how much fun the child seemed to be having, brightness of colors, and so on. Then we presented each picture pair, side-by-side, to 100 children at the height of the pretend play years (3 to 6 years old). Pictures were gender-matched to the child.
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