The latest research suggests we should stop looking askance at people who admit to having childhood imaginary friends and start encouraging the children in our lives to invent some playmates. In young kids, all types of imaginative play – including the gold standard, interacting with an imaginary friend – correlate with higher-level cognitive functions, which include self control, perspective taking, reasoning, memory and attention. These skills are critical to success in school and many other areas of life and are often impaired in children from low-income families.
While previous research had shown a relationship between imaginative play and cognitive skills, there were no studies checking whether exercising the imagination could improve children’s brainpower until University of Alabama psychology graduate student Rachel Thibodeau tackled the topic as part of her master’s thesis in summer and fall of 2015.
“We decided to directly test this instead of having correlational or observational data that says, hey, these kids seem a little bit smarter or these kids tend to have a better memory,” says Dr. Ansley Gilpin, assistant professor of psychology and lead researcher at UA’s Knowledge in Development Lab. “Let’s see if we can actually improve their memory or improve their self-control skills by having them practice these imaginative games that the kids who have these skills would do on their own.”
Thibodeau and Gilpin divided 121 preschool children ages 3 to 5 into three groups. For 15 minutes each weekday for five weeks, one-third of the kids engaged in imaginative play such as pretending to run a lemonade stand on the moon. A second group played non-imaginative games including Hot Potato and Duck, Duck, Goose. A third group received no extra playtime.
Kids in the imaginative group gained significant ground in cognitive functioning, while those in the other groups did not, Gilpin says. Kids who were most engaged in the imaginative play experienced the greatest gains. The Journal of Experimental Child Psychology published the study in the spring of 2016.
Students get involved
Based on that preliminary research, University of Alabama students led by Gilpin have embarked on a two-year project that will expand and extend the original measurements and – if results remain the same – improve the thinking skills of many young children in West Alabama. Each semester, 15 to 20 UA students work three to six hours per week on the project that involves 750 children in area preschools. At least a quarter of the kids are from low-income families.
“We know that cognitive skills are affected by chronic stress,” Gilpin says. “In low-income families, where there’s food insecurity, maternal depression, poverty and dangerous neighborhoods – the kids pick up on that and they tend to be stressed. And that inhibits the development of their brains, particularly an area called the prefrontal cortex, which is where all these cognitive skills like working memory and inhibitory control and attention are housed. We think the gains will be even greater in this group because they generally are discouraged from or do not participate in this kind of play.”UA students, most of whom earn academic credit through PY 451 Independent Research, carry out or assist with every aspect of the project, from interviewing children and leading play sessions to gathering, coding and entering data into computer systems. Some students also present findings at conferences.
“It’s really a great opportunity because you don’t get a lot of chances to engage in something like this as an undergraduate,” says Emily Pickle, a senior majoring in psychology. “You really get a sense of the big picture, and we feel like we have ownership in the project. It’s cool to be able to do so many things.”
Gilpin says students of all majors are welcome, but most are studying psychology, biology or anthropology. A student’s career objectives usually determine whether the project is a good fit. “Anybody who’s looking to work with people, either in the medical field or schools or whatnot, can really benefit from this program,” Gilpin says.
Nagasai Adusumilli, a senior majoring in psychology, says he plans to become a physician and is leaning toward pediatrics, so developmental psychology aligns well with his career plans. “A child’s psychological mechanisms and cognitive abilities are part of the holistic health care that is increasingly being practiced,” he says.
Students are trained to assess children’s cognitive functions and current play styles and to guide intervention play sessions. They then travel to preschools in groups of three to five, with a lead research assistant (an undergraduate with at least one semester’s experience with the project) or a graduate student directing each group. Students assess children individually before and after the five weeks of play intervention.
“Before this project, I had never really put much thought into the importance of imaginative play in the lives of young children, but now I can see what an impact it has on their lives and development,” says Katie Michaels, a senior majoring in foreign languages and literature and minoring in psychology. Michaels measures kids’ cognitive skills and ability to imagine.
Why it works
In the current study, students are testing two types of imaginative play: highly fantastical, in which children pretend to do something that couldn’t happen in real life, and realistic dramatic, in which children act out something they’ve done before such as going to a restaurant.
Gilpin says they want to find out whether fantastical play increases cognitive gains compared to realistic imagining. She hypothesizes it does because coming up with something novel exercises more of the basic cognitive skills. “We think we’ll see gains in the dramatic group, but not at the same level,” she says.
While it might not seem logical at first, Gilpin suspects kids who are imaginative in general excel in cognitive functioning for the same reason bilingual children do.
If a child is playing an imaginative game or is involved in an imaginative scenario and mom interrupts, the child has to switch between talking to mom and remembering the rules of the made-up game or scenario.
“Imaginative children get a lot of practice in switching back and forth between the real world and the imaginative world,” Gilpin says. “And that’s very similar to being bilingual in that you have to switch between speaking in one language, remembering all the grammatical and cultural rules of that language, and speaking another language to another person.”
Changing early childhood education
Developing cognitive skills between the ages of 3 and 5 is important because children rely on these skills to learn in school. Gilpin says the current research could have an impact on preschool and early-elementary curriculum for both typically developing children and those with cognitive delays.
“If our hypotheses are correct, this is a really easy intervention: have children imagine,” Gilpin says. “It’s free and it’s easy to do. I would really hope that preschools embrace this as an activity they need to do every day and that teachers would understand that not only do children need to play, but they need to imagine.”
Parents can easily encourage the activity as well, Gilpin says.
Michaels says working on the project led her to think more about the attention children need, especially during their formative years. She says being part of the research taught her skills she’ll use as a pediatric physical therapist and gave her a sense of purpose.
“Whenever I was in the lab or conducting a survey, I always felt as if I was doing something purely constructive and worthwhile with my time,” Michaels says. “Every moment you devote is something to be proud of.”
To learn more about the project or associated service-learning opportunities, contact Dr. Ansley Gilpin at 205-348-9903 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. Jason DeCaro, associate professor of biological anthropology, at email@example.com or 205-348-9061.