Let the Children Play, It’s Good for Them!
Walk into any preschool and you’ll find toddling superheroes battling imaginary monsters. We take it for granted that young children play and, especially, pretend. Why do they spend so much time in fantasy worlds?
People have suspected that play helps children learn, but until recently there was little research that showed this or explained why it might be true. In my lab at the University of California at Berkeley, we’ve been trying to explain how very young children can learn so much so quickly, and we’ve developed a new scientific approach to children’s learning.
Where does pretending come in? It relates to what philosophers call “counterfactual” thinking, like Einstein wondering what would happen if a train went at the speed of light.
In one study, my student Daphna Buchsbaum introduced 3- and 4-year-olds to a stuffed monkey and a musical toy and told them, “It’s Monkey’s birthday, and this is a birthday machine we can use to sing to Monkey. It plays “Happy Birthday” when you put a zando” (a funny-looking object) “on it like this.” Then she held up a different object and explained that it wasn’t a zando and therefore wouldn’t make the music play. Then she asked some tricky counterfactual questions: “If this zando wasn’t a zando, would the machine play music or not?” What if the non-zando was a zando? About half the 3-year-olds answered correctly.