Pretend Play as a Context for Learning New Information

Hopkins, Emily, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lillard, Angeline, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Many parents and educators advocate for an increased role for pretend play in early childhood education. They argue that pretending benefits children emotionally, socially, and cognitively. Pretend play is highly motivating for young children, so it could potentially be a useful tool to engage students with new material; however, there is little direct evidence that pretend play is useful as a context for teaching new information. In fact, it could be very difficult for children to learn new information that is presented in a pretend context because they tend to quarantine pretend worlds from reality. Several studies have investigated whether children can learn information presented in fictional stories, but comparatively few have considered the analogous question in pretend play: Can children learn new information that is embedded in a pretend context, and how does this learning compare to other non-pretend learning activities? The current study found that neither realistic nor fantastical pretend play influenced children’s learning of novel object categories or their analogous transfer of a novel problem solving strategy. Learning was predicted by children’s ability to discriminate fantasy from reality, suggesting that learning from play is an advanced cognitive strategy that involves separating realistic from implausible information. This work can inform the policy debate about the use of pretend play in early childhood education and provides a stepping stone for future investigations into the role of pretense and fantasy in learning.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
psychology, cognitive development, pretend play, learning
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