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Playing pretend and make believe: do children still do it?

My friend came across an interesting group of children the other day. She was babysitting them and asked if they wanted to play pretend. The answer dumbfounded her. They didn't know what playing pretend was.

This got me thinking. On the one hand, there are some parents who say that college starts in kindergarden, and will put money and effort into making sure their children go to pre-schools that teach skills that could possibly put them above their peers come kindergarden.

On the other hand, we live in one of the most interesting times in human history. Most children, from the moment they are born, have access to television, and apps on smartphones that are easy enough for them to operate.

I never grew up with a smartphone in my life like my little cousin who is 8. He plays Angry birds on his dad's iphone whenever we get together at holiday parties and whatnot. My first game system was a N64 when I was about 10, and the internet (dial up) when I was about 12. I didn't get a computer until I was in the seventh grade.

I grew up playing the backyard with a plastic sword and a cap rifle from disneyland, or in the living room with a wooden train set. With young children being exposed to all this constantly, it makes me wonder if imagination is dead, or if it just has become something else. I'm not sure. What are your thoughts on it?

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    Apr 28 2013: I probably should not be responding while being distracted by my four-year-old granddaughter who is being a baby cheetah prowling around on all fours purring, squealing with delight and pawing at my shins, for attention I imagine. Now, what was the question?
    • Apr 28 2013: All right you win this round sir. The basic question is, do parents (not all clearly) push childhood creativity out of the way in favor of early education that's not napping and finger-painting?
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        Apr 28 2013: I did not intend to derail the debate sir. My personal experience is that little ones today are as well-traveled in imaginary far away places as any of us were. I do believe that certain innovations in technology have presented very attractive alternatives to simple, unencumbered playtime. It seems reasonable that if parents become too devoted to filling every waking moment of the child's day with techno-tools that little imaginations could atrophy. What a shame to think of a young one feeling guilty for pretending to be a pirate or a princess.
        • Apr 29 2013: The reason I bring it up is because I see it in my family. Granted my siblings and I are older than the ones in the preface, but my parents pushed very early on to find something that we enjoyed, but could also be marketable. I attended an arts high school and really developed a love writing, acting and filmmaking, all things highly creative, and by my parents standards highly unemployable.

          Now I'm not saying that things like math and science aren't creative. It's just hard for a lot of people to wrap their heads around topics like that. What I am saying is, say a child early on loves telling stories, later, he realizes he can write them and pass on the joy he has to others through writing. But then someone tells him that being a writer isn't practical, and he should choose something else. It's saddens me to think about lost opportunities like that.
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        Apr 29 2013: RE: "The reason I bring it up, , , " That is a sad scenario. I have never experienced personally or by observation such ambition in parents. To cast aside the freedom of childhood in favor of enhanced employability is a poor choice. Kids will be kids it is said. Maybe it should say kids should be kids.
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          Apr 29 2013: I am also not personally familiar with parents focusing on employability for the very young.

          By secondary school that often changes, I know.
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    Apr 28 2013: Children still do this. They just don't necessarily call it "playing pretend."
  • May 3 2013: How would you answer a child's question of why the sky is blue and why the night is black?
    I need imaginary answers, not scientific phenomona
  • May 1 2013: Yes. Children still pretend and play make believe. It's just not always in the same forms that older generations are used to. Take, for example, just to bring up the game(s) and computers angle of your post. Yes, at the surface level, it might seem simplistic or not at all imaginative or creative. But if you look online at some of the things that people are doing with game narratives (fan fiction, fan art, live-action or animated fan films, machinima, mods, clones, spin offs, etc) there is a wealth of creativity that is being used - often utilizing at least some form of pretending or playing make believe.
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    Apr 30 2013: From a developmental stand point, all children "pretend" or engage in fantasy play

    "In Vivian Gussin Paley’s book, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play, she cites the landmark work of Sara Smilansky which found that children who lacked the skills necessary for fantasy play also struggled in other areas of classroom learning. High quality play, she found, could be taught by children, to children, and appeared to be the “necessary precursor for every other kind of learning in a classroom.” (pg 71)
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    Apr 29 2013: I wonder how many adults do?

    The U.S. discourages such as crazy or undesirable at the very least in need of medication.

    Yet I would contend that the founders used this very skill to imagine a country filled with imaginers, imagine that today?
    • Apr 29 2013: You bring up a larger issue as well sir about the stagnation of technology due in part to a lack of imagination and creativity.
      I will cite these two talks as evidence.

      Though I do disagree with the whole country discouraging people as crazy or undesirable. I would say maybe that the US sees people with artistic creativity as not useful to the capitalist system we use because it's well not useful to the system. The thing is, if you put an artistically creative person in the right environment, then you will see some spectacular innovation.
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        Apr 29 2013: My comment is in reference to the current culture that does not encourage imaginative thinking.

        Compared to the past, undeniably the most imaginative in the history of the world.
  • Apr 28 2013: I love to fly kites and being that the field, where I fly, is very close to 2 schools my kites get lots of attention.
    I have no idea if the kids are more amazed at the kites or the greyed haired old broad who is flying them.
    But! It didn't take long for several kids to twist a parent's arm to get their own kite & fly next to me.
    Now Delta kites are great for dives etc. so can see where I am now going with this.
    Dive bombings & all sorts of aerial displays now have sound effects and kites are now have pilot names.
    These kids used their imagination to create a whole world of fun on a breezy day.
    You might say: The old is blending with the new.
  • Apr 28 2013: I also pay attention to nowaday children,they are quite different from us anymore:less and less them play wildly like us in countryside:played with all kinds of plants, those children,more and more of them just stay at home playing games with all kinds of electronic products...i have no idea it is good or bad,or any differences bewteen them and us.But it really deserves to observe and have more researching in detail.
    • Apr 28 2013: I don't think television and video games are bad mind you. True they should probably get outside more, but I've seen that video games in particular inspire creative and imaginative ideas as much as they consume time. My younger brother (he's 13) for example is enamored with any flying vehicle in a game and always tries to think of ways that a design like he's seen would function in real life. It wouldn't surprise me if he became an engineer just to make his favorite aircraft a reality.
  • Apr 28 2013: This is a very interesting topic. I've noticed that in this current era, with technology all over, children aren't left alone with their own thoughts anymore. Creativity and imagination only come alive when the physical world ceases to entertain us, so we make up things in our head to make reality more enjoyable. Children don't "play" anymore, simple as that. Kids these days want Ipads and technology, not toys.
    • Apr 28 2013: I'm not saying it's dead necessarily. I'm sure children watching a tv show will daydream and think about going on an adventure with their heros. What I'm saying is they take those ideas and use them as a base for their adventures instead of making up their own if that makes sense. Because they're exposed to all this media so young, again not saying it's bad, but because of it, their creative process to me is stunted because they don't come up with original ideas necessarily.

      Now on that note there's a big difference between how children use imagination when they are alone and how they use it with others.
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        Apr 28 2013: I think children always have been influenced in their character play by characters with which they are acquainted. In the early days of television and thereafter, it might have been television characters. In the days prior, they might have been influenced by comic book heroes and the types from fairy tales- princesses, knights, witches, elves, cowboys... in addition to imaginary friends and creatures that live in closets, toys that come alive... Purely by way of anecdote, the characters that have animated the play in my house over these many years are not media connected. There are two, shall we say, whole civilizations populated by characters clearly not drawn from media that have become the stuff of songs, poetry, drama, visual art, and legend. There is an additional community I might call "retired" that was based on an easily constructed origami geometric shape.
        • Apr 28 2013: You know I didn't think of it that way, that's quite the brilliant insight.
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          Apr 29 2013: RE: "I am also not personally. . . " Agreed. By the age of 16 the pretending playtime should have been replaced with more focused, factual thought patterns and habits. That does NOT mean imagination should be laid to rest.
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    May 4 2013: Oh this is a good question. In some ways all this technology can give kids more ways to expand their imagination however I guess it doesn't give them the chance to get bored enough to think lets make a fort like I used to when I was younger and bored...and would still do today if I had the chance. The whole thing about educating kids from an early age can also help their imagination more as they will know more about the world around them however if your hard on kids from a earlier age they don't really have time to just be kids and do things like play pretend.

    I really hope that kids do still play pretend as I think it has a endless amount of benefits such as helping with their critical thinking skills. Some of my best memories as a kid was playing pretend....and I still indulge in playing pretend now as an adult however now sadly I either do it though online role play or in secret as seeing a grown woman sitting in a fort is a bit worrying...wish it wasn't.
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    May 4 2013: It's an interesting question you pose here, Case, and is something I was just thinking about the other day. With all this technology kids seem to use their imagination much less. They also seem to get bored more easily. Why is this? Perhaps they are becoming too used to a busy world with technology to keep them occupied. I wonder what future technology may bring.

    When I was growing up I spend a lot of time playing outside, and it saddens me somewhat to see my sister whiling away hours on my Dad's iPhone. But it's a different world out there now.

    I guess where children live has a bearing on how much time they spend using their imagination or spending time outdoors. Children living in rural areas might have less activities to keep them occupied and so might be more inclined to play pretend.

    Overall, I think children do still use their imaginations and play pretend, but they just don't have to do it as much in this day and age.
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    • May 3 2013: Chris, I loved reading this, and how you emphasize the importance of allowing kids 'their alone time'. I love being involved in my kids' development and joining in their play, but it also means I sometimes need to step back and let them discover things for themselves.
    • May 4 2013: Chris, I love this example as it is so bang on correct.

      I would add only one piece to it, that you and Lizanne have alluded to. That is not just "alone time" but down time where children do not have a requirement to do something. The students I work with have alone time but it is most often spent focusing on work and studies. The down time, where they have no requirements to do anything, allows the students mind to wander and become creative. Or to pursue something that they are passionate about. These down times allow us to free ourselves from the bounds of "what we have to do" and "daydream" which is a powerful piece of our psyche.
      • May 4 2013: Hi Everett - what a good observation, and one that makes me think. I agree, as soon as you give a child an assignment or require them to do something, their imaginations will be more hindered.

        My kids (whom I learn from on a daily basis!) are just beginning to develop a relationship with one another, rather than playing 'parallel' to each other (they are 5 and 6 years old). Being together produces conflict as well as creativity and pretending (they are siblings, after all!) I observe they often come up with more pretend play when they are together.

        They tend to determine by themselves when they are ready for 'down time', their individual time to reflect, to daydream, to space out, things that are best one alone.

        I understand what you mean about older kids needing 'alone time' to study. Heck, as a Mom, I need 'alone time' too (which I only get when I go to the bathroom!!)

        Would you agree that for younger kids, who don't yet require time alone to study or contemplate big issues, 'alone time' and 'down time' is the same thing?
        • May 4 2013: I do agree with you for younger children. I would even go so far as to say that this play time is much more important than maybe other times during the day to explore and just be creative. Alone time and down time is often the same thing but not always.

          I would only qualify this with the nature of the family dynamic. Some family dynamics, that are not well, "good" alone time and down time would be radically different. However, for most families, with young children, they could be considered the same for sake of this discussion.'
  • May 3 2013: In short, yes, children still play pretend and make-believe.

    I watch groups of children racing around the complex I live in playing all sorts of games from "war" to "house". The run and chase and have fun all the while they are creating their own world. On the other hand, I work in a school where play is suppressed in favor of education. Not by the school mind you but by those who wish to see their children succeed.

    Even those students who are pushed to succeed and play is suppressed, those children still find time to make believe and pretend. Though in shorter bursts and bits, but it still exists. And yes, play is a survival skill.
  • May 2 2013: Hi Case!
    I was actually a bit concerned about my 5-year-old son, who, when invited by his 6-year-old sister to play a game of make-believe involving talking teddy bears, answered defiantly: "But he can't talk!"
    I feared he was a natural-born realist.
    Thankfully, that same afternoon, I saw them playing pirates and princesses in the yard.

    I just stumbled upon an article on (on which I got hitched after watching a candid TED presentation by Babble publishers, Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman) called The Case for Make Believe:

    It says, among other things, that "The capacity to play is a survival skill." and "...each child's pretend play is unique". Pretending is like music or arts and crafts, it is a form of expression, which helps kids deal with situations, emotions, encouraging communication and respect for one another.

    Besides all the wonderful, creative benefits of 'free play', it is, according to an article in Scientific American, even seriously important:
    Psychiatrist Stuart Brown suggests "...a lack of opportunities for unstructured, imaginative play can keep children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults", and explains in his research how Charles Whitman, along with a few dozen other convicted killers, "were from abusive families, and they never played as kids".
    If this is true, I pledge to never stop pretending!
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    May 1 2013: "On the one hand, there are some parents who say that college starts in kindergarden, and will put money and effort into making sure their children go to pre-schools that teach skills that could possibly put them above their peers come kindergarden."

    It's not about being above your peers.
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    May 1 2013: yeah, my younger sisters do it all the time.
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    May 1 2013: I don't think imagination and pretending ever stop, although maybe they do get a bit more subtle as you get older. For example, amongst the drivers out there, who hasn't found themselves driving along on a quiet country road imagining they were a racing driver, or who has never found themselves singing in the shower imagining they are on stage at a big venue....................or is that just me?