Pretend play, also referred to as symbolic play or make-believe, has been around since…well, forever! For centuries, toddlers all over the world have engaged in pretend play without being taught to do so. Essentially, all humans are born with an innate ability to play make-believe!
Dr. Stephanie Carlson and her colleagues at the Institute of Child Development zeroed in on pretend play. They wanted to uncover pretend play’s function and identify the ways in which a child’s imagination can benefit their development. More specifically, they wanted to explore how pretend play connects to executive function. Executive function skills are our ability to store and use information, exhibit self-control, and be flexible and adaptable in different situations. In other words, super important skills that can help children be successful in relationships, academics, careers, and many other areas of life.
The Batman Effect
To test pretend play’s effects on executive function, Carlson and her team came up with an experiment that they call “The Batman Effect”. Their study was inspired by the famous 1972 Marshmallow Test created by Walter Mischel at Standford University. The Marshmallow Test was designed to examine a child’s ability to delay gratification and demonstrate self-control. The participants (children between ages 3 and 4) sat alone at a table and were given a marshmallow. They were told they could eat the marshmallow, or if they waited a few minutes, they could have two marshmallows when the experimenter returned. Follow-up studies showed that children who were able to wait had better life outcomes such as higher SAT scores, educational achievements, health, and other life measures.
One strategy the children used to deal with the struggle of waiting was playing pretend. For instance, some would pretend to “feed” their marshmallow to an imaginary friend to help pass the time. So, Carlson and her researchers decided to dig deeper into children’s make-believe technique. In their experiment, a toy was locked in a glass box and the children were given a set of keys to try to open it. However, none of the keys actually worked! Their goal was to see how the children handled the impossible task.
The 4-year old participants were given a choice. They could keep trying to open the glass box or they could choose to dress up as Batman (or Dora the Explorer) and continue the task. The results showed that the children who played make-believe showed more flexible thinking skills, spent more time on the challenge, and were more focused and calm. One participant boldly stated that “Batman never gets frustrated”. Carlson explains that “pretending puts ‘psychological distance’ between a child and the task at hand. Pretending helps a child step back from a problem and think about it from multiple angles. It helps him see different options for finding a solution.”
Takeaways from the Study
Even though this study involved 4 year-olds, The Batman Effect points to some wonderful conclusions about pretend play for all ages. When it comes to a toddler playing make-believe, we need to keep a few things in mind:
- Children use the same brain networks when they play pretend and when they’re in real-life situations. This means that when they imagine they’re a superhero, they’ll use those same neural networks when facing real challenges.
- Imagining that we’re strong, powerful, and confident, makes us feel more strong, powerful, and confident! That’s true for toddlers and adults!
- Playing pretend is a big part of building executive function skills. It’s important for parents and caregivers to remember that this type of play is intricately linked to central cognitive (and life!) skills.
You can find lots of fun pretend-play activities to do with your little one in our BabySparks program.