Does Imaginative Play Influence Cognition?

Dr. Ansley Gilpin
Dr. Ansley Gilpin

From the August 2015 Desktop News | The imaginative play that is such a large part of childhood may be more than mere child’s play. Dr. Ansley Gilpin, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, has received a $200,000 grant from the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania to find out.

She will conduct research on imaginative play in young children, which has important implications for children’s school readiness. The grant was the only child development study of 16 grants awarded out of nearly 250 grant applications that were considered.

Gilpin, the lead researcher at UA’s “Knowledge in Development Lab,” hopes to determine the most reliable and valid measurements of imagination in young children and test whether imaginative play can improve cognitive function.

“To assess and promote imagination, first we need to develop sensitive measures that evaluate imagination from multiple lenses,” Gilpin said.

Gilpin will partner with Dr. Jason DeCaro, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, to develop a physiological measure to add to a broad range of measurements of child imagination.

The two-year study will include 750 children between the ages of 3 and 5. Gilpin and UA graduate student Rachel Thibodeau recently completed a preliminary investigation of 113 children in the Tuscaloosa area.

Findings from that study showed boosts in cognitive function, such as memory and attention, in children who engaged in imaginative play, Gilpin said.

“To help boost cognitive functioning and study the power of imagination on development, we encourage children to engage in an imaginative play session every day for five weeks,” Gilpin said.

“They invent their own imaginative play scripts, such as pretending to run a lemonade stand on the moon. In contrast, a second group of children engage in non-imaginative play with games such as ‘hot potato’ or ‘duck duck goose.’”

For the Imagination Institute grant, Gilpin will add a pretend play group – play scenarios in which children re-enact things they’ve already experienced, such as going to a restaurant – to measure the boosts in cognitive function seen from pretend play versus fantastical play.

“We hypothesize that fantastical play exercises cognitive functioning more because it requires inhibiting reality, remembering a complex play script, and shifting attention from reality to fantasy,” Gilpin said. “We know many children are inherently interested in imaginative play, and we have data to show that children who naturally engage in a lot of fantastical play show cognitive benefits, but we don’t yet know why.

“Is there a direct link between fantastical play and cognitive functioning, such that engaging in highly imaginative play boosts cognitive functioning?” Gilpin asked. “Funding from the Imagination Institute will help us answer this question.”

Developing cognitive skills is vital between the ages of 3 and 5 because children rely on these skills in school. They need to be able to pay attention and remember information to facilitate learning.

“Children who have delayed cognitive functions have difficulty in school,” Gilpin said. “You see it across the board, but often in children who come from high-stress homes, as chronic stress has been shown to impair cognitive functioning.

“For this study, we’re testing the impact of imagination on cognition in typically developing children, but in future studies we expect to see even greater improvements in children who are experiencing cognitive delays.”

This research could have an impact on preschool and early elementary curriculum for both typically developing children as well as those who are delayed. The good news is that exercising cognitive function through imaginative play is an easy, fun and virtually cost-free way to help children be ready for school, the researchers said.