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Imaginative Play and Executive Function

Encouraging Children in Imaginative Play Leads to Higher “Executive Function”
by Jennifer Kushnier

It wasn’t so long ago when we “played house” with nothing more than a corner play space, or built a pirate ship out of couch cushions and blankets. Our own kids, however, have fully furnished play houses, as well as model pirate ships complete with eye patches, swords, and parrots. We think we’re benefitting them with things we didn’t have ourselves. Isn’t it nicer to have an actual lightsaber, rather than pretending to be Luke Skywalker by using a tree branch? Or drinking imaginary tea from a pretty set, instead of pretending to hold a cup to lips?

A recent look at how children play says no. The way children played just half a century ago—in full-on imagination or make-believe mode, rather than with toys standing in for everything from trains to dogs—helped them develop a cognitive skilled called executive function, which aids in self-regulation (think: ability to control emotions, practice self-discipline, and exhibit impulse control). Poor executive function has been tied to higher drop-out rates, crime, and drug use, whereas good executive function can ultimately be a better predictor of school success than IQ scores.

The way kids play today can’t be tied solely to what lies in their toy chests. More of their time than ever before is being regulated by swim lessons, music lessons, sports practice, camps of all kinds, Girl and Boy Scouts, not to mention mountains of homework to help prepare them for the standardized tests they’ll eventually face. In our efforts to give them everything we think they need to get ahead in the world, we may be overlooking the simplest, most readily available thing: their imaginations.


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