Playing Make-Believe Prepares Kids for the Real World

"No playing until you've finished your homework!" We've all heard that before. New research suggests, though, that imaginative play actually increases children's academic success.


Kids naturally like to play make-believe. Studies have now shown how imaginative playing may be used to prepare kids for school. In a number of studies, Singer and Singer's (1992, 2001) research team trained parents, teachers, and home care providers in make-believe games that included lessons about numbers, colors, shapes, vocabulary, and reading. These researchers found that children who play with their caregivers in these imaginative ways make significant gains in readiness skills, as compared to a control group whose caregivers did not learn these play skills. Playing is also good for caregivers, because it involves them as full partners in children's development (Singer & Singer, 2001; Singer & Singer, 1992).


A significant percentage of American children, especially children from low-income families, enter kindergarten unprepared to learn. While high-quality care from parents and other caregivers can improve children's school readiness, engaging parents and children in early intervention techniques can be difficult. Imaginative playing is one kind of care that is enjoyable for both parent and child, is easier to teach than some other interventions, and is effective in preparing children for school.

Practical Application

Learning through imaginative play has been incorporated into curricula in Connecticut, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Alabama, and Ohio--just to name a few places. Researchers have also created and distributed a video-based program, entitled "Learning Through Play for School Readiness." Under a U.S. Department of Education grant, 2700 copies of this video were given to Head Start centers, PBS Ready-to-Learn Directors, public libraries, and other organizations that serve low-income communities. This video-based program trains parents and other caregivers to engage 3-5 year-old children in intrinsically motivating learning games that produce measurable gains in children's key ready-to-learn skills, such as enhanced vocabulary.

Cited Research

Singer, D. G., & Singer, J. L. (1992). . The house of make-believe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Singer, D.G. & Singer, J. L. (Eds.) (2001). Handbook of children and the media. Sage Publications.

American Psychological Association, May 28, 2003