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Pretend: Key to Imagination

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Pretend Play: Key to Imagination


Why do children pretend play?

On, a website where students post about their childhood play, both a US girl AntoniaAC and a Chinese girl Iridium reported they have pretend played in their childhood.

“We were warriors”, said AntoniaAC, “Amazonian women with super strength and with a knack for vanquishing demons, rebuilding destroy villages (mud homes), and soldiers in a forgotten war.”

On the other hand, Iridium had a much more “peaceful” childhood: “We picked the best meaning Chinese characters we had ever known to make up names for the characters, most of the times princesses”.

Despite the difference in their culture, despite their difference in their character, these two girls still managed to come up with the same game: pretend play. Pretend play is a game that requires its participants to playfully imagine the world different from what the world actually is. Pretend play can split in to sociodramatic play and fantasy play, where sociodramatic play mimics the scenes children adopted from what they have seen or experienced in their life, and fantasy play incorporates fictional characters and experience of children’s own (Hughes). To take the posts as examples, the US girl AntoniaAC’s experience of Amazonia women would be a kind of sociadramatic play, while the Chinese girl Iridium’s experience will be considered as fantasy play. In fact, there are many other children across the globe who managed to come up with the exact game as well. Pretend play comes naturally to all children; it is a play written in our genes.

The question is, why do children need to pretend play? For an activity to come naturally to an entire species, it needs to have a solid evolutionary base. For an activity to have a evolutionary base, it need to be beneficial. What is the benefit?

Before we can answer this question, we need to first understand the benefit of play. According to Stuart Brown, the head of National Institution for Play, human play is a  part of  “developmental sequencing of becoming a human primate”. (Henig 1).  This statement is supported by research conducted on many nonhuman animals.

One of these research is conducted by John Byers, a zoologist in University of Idaho. He found that the playfulness chart of juvenile rats (which has a shape of a inverted “U”, increasing as the rat grow up and decreased after puberty) has an exact same shape of the developmental chart of rat’s cerebellum. His further research on other animals shows that there is a two directional direct link between play activities and animal cerebellum development. In another word, Byers found that play deprivation would negatively affect brain cerebellum development while underdeveloped cerebellum would result in fewer play activities (Henig 8). Another research was conducted by Pellis, a research at University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, that play deprivation may result in inadequate prefrontal cortex development (Henig 8).

If one is looking at these two pieces of research from a psychologist or biologist point of view, the connection between play and development would be clear. Cerebellum, the part of the brain that is responsible for body coordination and muscle movement, has the exact same developmental pattern as the playfulness chart. In another word, juvenile animals play the hardest when their brains learn how to use their muscles the fastest. Playing is also about decisions, so one should not be surprised to see the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for thinking and decision making, underdeveloped if the juveniles have not played enough. In short, juvenile non human animals are using plays to teach themselves how to use their bodies and brains.

The same could apply to human children as well. When our children are play-fighting, they are learning to use their muscles and their body. However, human children play much more than play-fighting. Pretend play is the play that sets human from other nonhuman animals: only mammals play, and only human pretend play.

What separates ordinary play from pretend play then? LiquidEcho’s post on may answer the question: “Whether it be playing with polly-pockets, pretending to be mermaids, or hosting a fake car wash with miniature cars, I've always used my imagination to the fullest”. Imagination is the key to pretend play. When human children are under 19 months, they would try to grasp the object in a picture, which signals they could not distinguish the difference between a real object and an imagined object. When human children are 19 months, however, they will replace grasping with pointing. This is an important change that shows human children at 19 months have a brain that has developed complex enough for them to imagine and understand imagined objects (Goldman). Another research show that while children at 3 years old would look at a balloon in television and believe they will actually fly away if the television frame is removed, children at 4 years old would not believe so (Goldsmith). This is also a sign that suggests children’s brain have grown to distinguish the difference between reality and pretending.

Here we see a positive relationship between ability to imagine and pretend playing: children under 19 months old would not play pretend play at all, because their brain can not yet understand imagination; older children, for example, four years olds, would start playing fantasy plays because their brain can now successfully pretend. Such is very similar to the pattern we see between play-fight and children’s brain development. Hence, here is the induction: pretend play is helping children to practice their ability to imagine.

Why is developing imagination beneficial? Because all the achievements human have are based on imagination and abstract concepts. The human society is build upon laws,  policies, economics, and science: these are all abstract concepts. A human teenager has to understand the abstract science concept to be successful in school. A human adult has to master complicated abstract policies and economics to be successful in society. Practicing imagination in their childhood through pretend playing would be a safe choice.

Pretend playing is the key to imagination. Looking back in childhood, one might be surprised how he/she have been preparing themselves for their future. Children play-fight and running around to practice using their bodies, pretend play to practice using their imaginations. Evolution has given us all the mechanism we needed to thrive, scholars’ job is just to look for them.