Academic journal article American Journal of Play

The Role of Make-Believe Play in the Development of Executive Function: Status of Research and Future Directions

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

The Role of Make-Believe Play in the Development of Executive Function: Status of Research and Future Directions

Article excerpt

The authors discuss the association between make-believe play and the development of executive-function (EF) skills in young children. Some forty years ago, Lev S. Vygotsky first proposed that make-believe fosters the development of symbolic thought and self-regulation. Since then, a small body of research has produced evidence of an association between pretend play and such EF skills as inhibitory control, but its results have been inconclusive and more studies are needed. Still, some research points to the potential mediating role of private speech in the association between pretense and EF, and other evidence suggests that adults can support children's EF development by facilitating and encouraging (but not controlling) young children's make-believe play. Yet other research indicates that the influence of make-believe on EF may be moderated by child characteristics and by the content and themes of play. The authors specifically call for more research on the potential causal link between pretense and EF development in early childhood. Keywords: executive function; inhibitory control; make-believe; pretend play; private speech; sociodramatic play

Executive function (EF)-an umbrella term for self-regulatory skills- refers to the set of cognitive operations and strategies necessary for overseeing and conducting challenging, purposeful life tasks. EF encompasses controlling attention, suppressing impulses in favor of adaptive responses, and combining information in working memory, as well as planning, organizing, monitoring, and flexibly redirecting thought and behavior. A large body of research confirms that early childhood is a crucial time for laying the foundations of EF (Welsh 2001; Welsh, Friedman, and Spieker 2008). Between ages two and six, typically developing children make impressive strides in focusing attention, inhibiting inappropriate responses, planning sequences of actions, and thinking flexibly. Moreover, assessments of EF during the preschool years consistently predict aca- demic achievement and social maturity in the years from kindergarten through high school (Blair and Diamond 2008; Blair and Razza 2007; Duncan et al. 2007; Pagani et al. 2010; Rhoades, Greenberg, and Domitrovich 2009; Romano et al. 2010). Consequently, clarifying the experiences that contribute to early gains in EF has become a high priority for developmental and educational researchers (Diamond 2012).

In 1933 in a brief twelve-page essay, eminent developmental psychologist Lev S. Vygotsky (1978) presented a provocative, innovative theory on the power of play to augment young children's self-regulation. Vygotsky emphasized the importance of symbolic play-the make-believe that emerges in toddlerhood and that flourishes during the preschool years, evolving into sociodramatic sce- narios with peers involving complex coordination of roles. He granted pretense the status of "a leading factor in development," deeming it a zone of proximal development in which children display a level of maturity more advanced than in nonplay contexts. The child who sits still for only a few minutes during story time can attend for as long as five to ten minutes while playing school; the child who readily grabs playmates' toys shares and waits his turn while collaboratively enacting a meal-preparation scene with peers. In Vygotsky's words, "In play the child always behaves above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself" (102). The capacities forged in play, Vygotsky proposed, gradually transfer to real-world endeavors, making play a major source of development.

The power of symbolic play to foster young children's self-regulation, Vygotsky pointed out, occurs on two fronts. First, make-believe strengthens children's internal capacity to regulate behavior. Playful use of substitute objects helps young preschoolers realize that symbols (including words and gestures) are distinct from the objects and events to which they refer. …

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