“Batman never gets frustrated.”
That’s a key insight we got from our research on executive function and pretend play. And it came from a 4-year-old in my research lab.
Executive function is a set of brain skills. These skills allow us to manage our thoughts, actions and emotions. They include things like:
- Flexible thinking: Adjusting to the unexpected and thinking about things in multiple ways.
- Working memory: Holding information in mind and working with it.
- Impulse control: Ignoring distractions and controlling urges.
We know kids with executive function challenges and ADHD often struggle in school. Even mild challenges can prevent kids from reaching their full potential.
I’ve devoted my life to studying executive function and finding ways to help young kids strengthen these skills. One big question my colleagues and I have asked is this: How do kids with strong executive function skills put them to use? What are they doing to delay gratification, persist at tasks, and stay focused?
There’s a famous study called the Marshmallow Test that helped answer some of these questions. In the experiment, 4-year-olds got an extra marshmallow if they were able to wait for it. Some kids could wait up to 15 minutes.
The kids who got the extra marshmallow were using specific strategies to help them wait. One of the strategies that stood out was pretending or “make believe.” For instance, a child might pretend to “feed” treats to an imaginary friend.
That got my colleagues and me thinking.
Young children are already experts at pretend role-play. They spend as much as two-thirds of their waking hours doing it. We wondered — what if we asked kids to pretend while doing a “serious” activity? What if it were a difficult activity that challenges their executive function skills?
To answer this question, we set up an experiment with 4-year-olds.
In the experiment, we put a toy in a glass box. Then we gave the kids a set of keys to unlock the box to play with the toy. The trick was that none of the keys worked. I know that sounds a little mean, but we were trying to understand how kids can improve their executive function skills.
We wanted to see how long the kids would keep trying to open the box. To help them, we offered them a few different strategies to use — and one was to pretend they were Batman. We even gave them a Batman cape. (They could also choose to be Dora the Explorer.)
You can see a sample of the experiment in the video below.
What my colleagues and I found was eye-opening.
Kids who pretended were more flexible thinkers than those who didn’t pretend. They spent more time trying to open the box. They tried more keys. They were calmer.
Kids who “made believe” they were Batman acted as if they were a year older in terms of executive function skills. As one of the 4-year-olds in our research wisely explained, “Batman never gets frustrated.”
Why does pretending help kids with tough tasks?
We think it’s because pretending puts “psychological distance” between a child and the task at hand. Pretending helps kids step back from a problem and think about it from multiple angles. It helps them see different options for finding a solution.
Pretending also uses the same brain networks as real behavior. So if kids practice using pretend play, it’s more likely they’ll use those same brain networks in real situations. It’s similar to the advice “fake it till you make it.” Imagining you’re someone more competent and confident can help children — and even adults — act as if they are more competent and confident.
Some adults may think of “make believe” as being the opposite of self-control — like letting go. But it’s important to know that when kids pretend or play “make believe,” they’re using and building executive function skills.
See how executive function challenges can affect a child’s daily life. Explore strategies you can use at home to help your child improve executive function skills. And get tips on how to role-play with your child.
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About the author
About the author
Stephanie M. Carlson, PhD is a professor and director of research at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota.