We are often shocked by the ways in which the media crafts simple headlines from complicated 60 page scientific papers. The good news is that they offer a tweetable sound bite that is easily digested by parents hungry for the latest news about how to raise their children.  The bad news is that headlines rarely contain the nuance that is so carefully woven into the larger paper. Such is the case with the latest transgression by the Science News entitled, “Pretend play might not be as crucial to child development as believed, new study shows”.

In a superbly researched study, Professor Angela Lillard and her colleagues of the University of Virginia reviewed over 150 scientific papers asking whether pretend play CAUSES language, literacy, creativity or problem solving to name a few.   So, when Jonny pretends he is a knight in shining armor and Julie pretends she is fighting a fire-breathing dragon, do these age-old activities fuel the development of school related skills in learning to learn or in language, reading and math?  

Lillard suggests that the answer is, “It depends.”  The data are so weak in this area of study, that little can be said conclusively – even though a google search reveals mountains of data on this issue.  For language and literacy, fighting a fire-fighting dragon or the having a fictional tea with the queen confers some benefits.  Children who play more, talk more and develop richer stories.  For creativity and problem solving the data are not clear or more poignantly, the data are so sloppy that we just cannot tell.  Of course, no data does not mean negative data, so we just have to stay tuned.

Does this well researched review mean that we should keep our costumes at home and reserve the school for real work?  Does it mean that play is not as crucial to development as believed?  No, the headline here is misleading at best.

It turns out that pretend play is merely one type of play among many.  Research by top scientists like Anthony Pelligrino at the University of Minnesota acknowledges the importance of recess for spurring physical activity in an otherwise sit-at-your-desk kind of day and for letting off the steam that builds up while you are restlessly trapped in that classroom.  Kids are more attentive and ready to learn after they play on the macadam then when they are not given a chance to go outside.

Then there are board games.  Researchers Bob Seigler and Geetha Ramani from Carnegie Mellon University found that playing games like Chutes and Ladders helped support early mathematical readiness.  Our own work shows the value of playing with blocks in building spatial language like above, through, over and under – language that undergirds STEM learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  And researchers like Sylvia Bunge from UCLA demonstrate how 7 year-old children can use playful games to learn about second order reasoning. No joke.

Since the time of the enlightenment, philosophers like Locke and Kant have linked play to learning.  And Lillard’s research demonstrates why it is so critical not only to do these studies, but to do them right.   Even if play had no extrinsic value beyond enjoyment, it would be worth understanding a phenomenon that has been around since the beginning of recorded time.

So, let’s not remove the dress-up corner from the classrooms just yet.  That kid on the hobby horse who is rounding up those imaginary buffalo might just be the kid who is learning the vocabulary of the Wild West.  He is actively engaged in meaningful learning and is having fun at the same time.   Now that is an equation for real success in school.

By Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, from The Huffington Post