Around the world, young children engage in pretend play, mentally transforming the present reality in the spirit of fun and amusement. They play “house,” preparing pretend meals and adopting familial roles like mommy and baby; they battle imaginary monsters; or they act out the roles and practices of adults in their community.
And yet, although pretend play appears universal, there is considerable variability in its perceived value and frequency. Middle-class American parents and the American Academy of Pediatrics endorse play as crucial to development, believing that it imparts cognitive, physical, social, and emotional benefits to children. In contrast, parents in other cultures do not share this view.
A survey of mothers in 16 countries found that only 15% of mothers viewed pretend play as necessary for healthy development. For example, Yucatec Maya men believe children should be engaged in “productive activity” rather than play, and women appreciate play to the extent that it allows them to work without children’s interference.
As a result, children differ widely in the amount of time they spend engaged in pretend or real activities. In many traditional societies, children pretend much less and instead engage in practical life tasks such as preparing food or looking after siblings. They use small versions of adult tools— even potentially dangerous ones, like knives —and they learn by observing and practicing, rather than just by pretending.
Do children prefer pretend or real activities?
But do American children themselves prefer pretend play to real activities? To find out, my colleagues and I asked 100 preschoolers (ages 3 to 6) to choose between pretend and real versions of nine different activities (e.g., riding a horse, baking cookies, etc.) and justify their choices.
While 3-year-olds showed no significant preference for pretend or real activities, a strong preference for real activities emerged by age 4 and remained constant through age 6. These results are striking from a Western perspective—as preschoolers, these children are considered to be in the “high season” of pretend play, and yet they would rather do real things.
“To children, pretending is, at least to some degree, just a substitute until they are ready for the real thing.”
Children preferred real activities because they are functional and useful. For example, one child found real fishing “better than just pretend fishing because I’ll eat yummy fish,” and another wanted to really wash dishes because “then I can actually use them again.”
When children did select pretend activities, it was most often because they were unable, unallowed, or afraid to do the real thing. For example, one child preferred to pretend to cut vegetables because “my mom doesn’t let me use knives because I’m not a grown-up yet,” and another wanted to pretend to ride a tractor because “I’m a little scared I might fall off.”
“Children certainly enjoy pretend play, but perhaps in our desire to give children this leisure we have gone too far, keeping them from engaging in the real world around them.”
These justifications are informative: American adults view pretend play as an essential contributor to healthy development, but it seems that to children, pretending is, at least to some degree, just a substitute until they are ready for the real thing. Children certainly enjoy pretend play, but perhaps in our desire to give children this leisure we have gone too far, keeping them from engaging in the real world around them.
If we have the ability to provide children with real experiences, we should do so; it can be a meaningful and empowering experience for them.
Taggart, J., Heise, M. J., & Lillard, A. S. (2018). The real thing: Preschoolers prefer actual activities to pretend ones. Developmental Science, 21(3). doi: 10.1111/desc.12582