We know that humans are born with an innate sense of curiosity, and we take it for granted that young children will play and pretend in fantasy worlds. While we’ve assumed that play helps children learn, the last decade of research by cognitive scientists is explaining the importance of play and pretend.
From an evolutionary perspective, play is ubiquitous and it’s not just found with young humans but also with young chimps, wolves, dolphins, rats, crows and even octopuses. Play is especially common in social animals like us, who have relatively long childhoods, parental investment and large brains.
Professor of Psychology, Philosophy and author, Professor Alison Gopnik, studies how babies' and young children's minds work. She has undertaken research to show the positive relationship between children’s reasoning, thinking about different possibilities and how this helps children learn.
She writes that babies and very young children can ‘‘already consider possibilities, distinguish them from reality and even use them to change the world. They can imagine different ways the world might be in the future and use them to create plans. …most dramatically they can create completely imaginary worlds, wild fictions and striking pretenses… Children’s brains create casual theories of the world, maps of how the world works… and these theories allow children to envisage new possibilities and to imagine and pretend the world is different”.
Professor Gopnik believes that the value of play and pretend is that it helps children consider what would happen if the world were different, and then working out the consequences. But she stresses that it’s the very silliness of play, is what makes it so effective as it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected.
“The idea is that children at play are like pint-sized scientists testing theories. They imagine ways the world could work and predict the pattern of data that would follow if their theories were true, and then compare that pattern with the pattern they actually see. Even toddlers turn out to be smarter than we would have thought if we ask them the right questions in the right way”.
Reference Gopnik, A. (2017) The Gardener and the Carpenter. Vintage Publishing, USA