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The Power of Imagination
How pretend play can nurture children's grit, resilience and coping skills.
I wish I could revisit the rich imaginative worlds I created as a child — the one where I was an eagle soaring high above the clouds, and the one in which I was a fairy dancing through enchanted woods. Now, when my kids ask me to play with them, I not only cannot immerse myself in their imaginary worlds, but I find myself excruciatingly bored within three minutes. The magic of my childhood brain is gone — or so it feels sometimes.
Although I have a deep respect for children’s imagination, I’ll admit that I never knew just how powerful it was until I started digging into the science of imagination a few weeks ago. Imaginative play has many diverse benefits for kids, but today I’m going to focus on the ways in which it helps kids develop perseverance and cope with difficult emotions — and I’ll provide tips on what parents can do to foster these fascinating benefits.
Let me start by describing the famed Marshmallow Test, which was first conducted in the 1960s by psychologist Walter Mischel and his colleagues and has since been studied in different contexts. In their first experiments, Mischel and his team gave preschoolers a choice: They could immediately eat one of their favorite treats (often but not always a marshmallow), or they could wait a while — up to 20 minutes — to get two.
How long the kids sat there predicted various outcomes decades later. The more seconds the kids waited, the higher their SAT scores in high school and the better their social and cognitive functioning in adolescence. By the time the kids were between the ages of 27 and 32, those who had waited longer during the test had a greater sense of self-worth, pursued their goals more effectively, and coped better with frustration and stress.
People often say that the skill reflected in the Marshmallow Test is self-control or delayed gratification. That’s true. But in trying to understand how kids exercise self-control, Mischel and his colleagues have zeroed in on what they consider a key ingredient: psychological distance, which is essentially the ability to distance oneself, psychologically, from the thing that you want. “Creating a psychological distance — treating yourself as if you're outside yourself — helps you to persist in difficult things,” explained Duke psychologist Tamar Kushnir, who has studied this phenomenon, when I interviewed her last week.
There are lots of ways to create psychological distance, but one way is through pretend play. In a 2017 study, researchers asked 4- and 6-year-olds to do a boring but important computer task. The researchers said to the kids: “This is a very important activity and it would be helpful if you worked hard on this for as long as you could.” They also told the kids that they could take breaks whenever they wanted and play games on a nearby iPad.
While playing, one group of kids were told to think about their own thoughts and feelings and to ask themselves the question, “Am I working hard?” A second group of kids were told to distance themselves slightly from the situation and use their own name to ask themselves the question, “Is [my name] working hard?” Finally, a third group were told to think about someone else who is really good at working hard and were given the option of four characters to consider: Batman, Bob the Builder, Rapunzel and Dora the Explorer. After each child in this group chose a character, they were allowed to dress up as the character and were told to ask themselves, “Is [character’s name] working hard?”
Although the kids in every group spent more time on the iPad games than on the boring task, they stuck with the boring task longer if they’d engaged in psychological distancing. Kids spent the most time working on the boring task when they pretended to be one of the hard-working characters, spent a bit less time on the task if they referred to themselves in the third person, and spent the least amount of time on the task if they merely asked themselves, “Am I working hard?”
There are several reasonable explanations for why pretending made these kids persevere, but one possibility is that taking on a superhero alter ego separated the kids from their own experience so that they could disengage more successfully from the temptation of the iPad. (Among academics, this effect is referred to as “The Batman Effect,” which I love.)
Other research supports the link between pretend play and self-control. In a 2021 study, researchers found that low-income preschoolers who engaged in more pretend play over the course of a school year made bigger gains in the development of a skill known as inhibitory control — essentially, the ability to suppress impulsive thoughts and behaviors — compared with kids who engaged in less pretend play. Perhaps pretending to be superheroes or other characters helped them to overcome their less-than-constructive urges. Social play requires kids to cooperate and negotiate with their peers, both of which help to develop impulse control, too.
The effects of psychological distancing may even be more powerful in girls than in boys, at least in certain contexts. In a study published a few months ago, Kushnir, along with psychologists Reut Shachnai and Lin Bian, asked 4- to 7-year-olds to play a science game that involved predicting whether an object would sink or float when placed on water. Some kids were simply asked to play the game. Other kids, before playing the game, learned about a scientist who matched their gender that they were unlikely to have heard of — Marie Curie or Isaac Newton. The kids were told that the scientist “always worked really hard even when things got tricky.” A third group of kids were told about the scientist and then were asked to play the game while pretending to be the scientist, with the researchers referring to the kids as “Dr. Marie” or “Dr. Isaac” throughout the game.
After each round, the kids were given the choice to keep playing or to do something else. They found that although most boys continued playing the game no matter what group they were in, the girls were divided: Those who didn’t hear about the scientist completed just five rounds of the game; girls who heard about the scientist played an average of nine rounds; and girls who heard about and then pretended to be the scientist wanted to play 12 rounds. (Also, it’s worth noting that boys and girls performed equally well on the task, and that their accuracy didn’t vary by which group they were in.)
Why is the effect so powerful for girls? Perhaps, the authors speculated, because the act of pretending allows girls to separate themselves from the negative gender stereotypes that typically steer them away from STEM activities. Perhaps pretending to be someone like Marie Curie helps girls to see that they’re not all that different from female scientists, leading to what the authors called a “blurring of the boundaries between the role model and the self.”
I want to stop here and interject that there are also plenty of situations in which we as parents shouldn’t be focused on grit and perseverance. When our kids try new activities and don’t like them, for instance, it’s totally fine (and wise) for them to quit. When they realize a new commitment isn’t actually a good use of their time, quitting can actually be the best choice. But in situations in which they really do want to (or need to) stick to something hard or boring, that’s when we should consider giving our kids the tools to make it easier for them to do so.
As for how to help kids tap into their invisible powers of imagination, keep in mind that there’s no one right way, Kushnir told me. Different kids may be more or less drawn to imaginative play and engage differently with it, and that’s fine. (Also, parents of kids in Montessori schools: Don’t freak out. Montessori schools do not encourage pretend play, but this doesn’t mean your child is losing out on key skills. As Kushnir emphasized to me, Montessori kids do well both academically and creatively, which suggests that Montessori approaches support the development of these skills in other ways.)
Still, if you’re in situations in which you want your child to stick with a tough task — homework, or an especially tough hike, or learning the trumpet — it could help to ask them to imagine themselves as a favorite superhero or strong, hard-working alter ego. They could try to embody the person, dress up like them, even talk like them. And when you engage with them in those moments, consider calling your kids by their alter ego’s names, too.
I want to point out one final powerful perk associated with psychological distancing and pretending: It can help kids (and adults) constructively cope with negative feelings. In a 2011 study, researchers including Mischel asked fifth graders to remember and analyze their feelings about a past experience that had made them angry involving another person. Some of the kids were asked to immerse themselves in their feelings, in that they were told to “see the situation unfold through your own eyes as if it were happening to you all over again,” while other kids were told the following instead:
Move away from the situation to a point where you can now watch the event unfold from a distance and see yourself in the event. As you do this, focus on what has now become the distant you. Now watch the situation unfold as if it were happening to the distant you all over again.
The researchers found that, compared with the “see it through your own eyes” kids, those who were asked to pretend to distance themselves from the action analyzed the situation with less emotional reactivity and felt less blame toward the other person, ultimately causing them to recall the event “in ways that promoted insight and closure,” the researchers wrote.
In another study involving some of the same researchers, adolescents and adults also felt much less anxiety when imagining a possible future stressor — a potential bad experience like failing an exam or developing a terminal illness — if they imagined it from a psychological distance rather than considering themselves in the middle of it.
So if your child is struggling to process something that happened in the past, and you think it would be helpful for them to re-engage with the memory, consider suggesting that they imagine themselves watching from a distance, like a fly on the wall. Same goes if they’re worried about something in the future — by having them tap into their imagination to create psychological distance between themselves and the scary possibility, you’ll help them cope better with their uncertain future.