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Sep 232013

Article Review of  “Linking self-regulation, pretend play and learning in young children”.  Article by Marcy Guddemi, PHD, MBAE, SEEN Magazine (SouthEast Education Network), 8/21/2013
Reviewed by Erin Calhoun, Contributor.

The most amazing cookies and cupcakes I have ever eaten were made of ingredients readily on hand, took little effort, and bonded the family together while making them.  These cookies were even better than the famous Neiman Marcus or Mrs. Fields, for these cookies were made with imagination and love.

Research has found that when our children come to us with imaginary food and make-believe scenarios, they are not only feeding our parental hearts, but such pretend play actually “feeds” our children’s developing brains! This feeding (or strengthening) of the brain through pretend play not only increases a child’s success in their early childhood education, but research also tells us that the effects last well into middle and high school.  The book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum, may not be that far from the truth after all.  To find success in school, children need to learn certain life skills.  They need to be able to walk in line without bumping into people.  They need the ability to listen for a time, without talking and squirming (too much).  Students need to learn how to be elegant winners and losers.  We need to know how to share.  These self-control skills honed through imaginary play are part of a larger group of skills called executive functioning.  This exciting research, detailed by Dr. Guddemi and published in SEEN Magazine, asserts the importance of pretend play in early childhood as it stimulates the part of the brain responsible for important academic and life skills: executive functioning.

Make Believe

Image of Dump Truck courtesy of Avolore, hosted on Flickr.com under Creative Commons 2.0 license

Executive functioning is the brain’s ability to exhibit self-control, use working memory, and exercise cognitive flexibility, which are all critical thinking skills required for success in school and beyond.  As youngsters engage their imagination while playing, they develop flexibility of thinking and the self-control needed to pretend they are another character and act out the role.  Children, ages 3 through 8, who have ample opportunity for pretend play are strengthening the part of the brain that enhances executive functions, and they are found to have significantly higher reading fluency, reading comprehension abilities, and higher math scores.  Researchers have also discovered that language skills, creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, the ability to see other’s perspectives, taking on challenges, making connections, and the ability to be a better self-directed learner are all benefits of pretend play.

No longer have a little one in the home?  The brain functions developed through pretend play from years past will continue to impact your adolescent throughout school, but self-control skills must continue to be taught and encouraged at home, even for your older child. With a developed ability to delay gratification, adolescents are not only better equipped for life, but research done in New Zealand found that teens with well-developed executive functions were “Four times less likely to have a criminal record, three times less likely to be addicted to drugs, and half as likely to become single parents.”  These teens were able to become healthy and successful adults.

As parents, it is so important that we remember to encourage imaginary play,  for it truly feeds our child’s brain.  When your super hero, princess, Pooh Bear, or Minnie Mouse insists on going to the store in costume, allow it with a smile and confidence. Others in the store will be smiling, too.  Next time you grow weary teaching your child the hard lessons of self-control, feel empowered knowing that you are actually strengthening their brain and their ability to succeed later in life! When your child wants the latest figurine to play with, consider it part of their college tuition.  There are more benefits than fun and memories by encouraging imaginary play and instilling self-control within our children.  Engaging in play with our children and raising them with life-skills, helps them become better learners and thinkers.

For more information about the importance of pretend play in early childhood, check out Tools of the Mind.