How Can Children’s Imaginative Play Develop Character?


“Today I will be the doctor … here I give you medicine. Open your mouth.”   –F (3 years old)

When children imagine, they can be anything or anyone in any time and any place. They can put themselves into all varieties of situation, good or bad, react however their imagined character would react… and in the end, put it all down and walk away without suffering any real world consequences. Imaginative play offers a space for children to try on emotions, to think about mental states, and to practice making moral decisions.

It’s actually surprisingly difficult to define imaginative play in a thorough way. Most people know what it is when they see it—playing cops and robbers, or dressing up like a scientist—but researchers have struggled to create a definition that encompasses the full range of imaginative play activities children engage in. Imaginative play must also be separated from physical play or rule based games, and take cultural norms into account. Most scholars would agree imaginative play is any type of play that uses non-literal action and is done for enjoyment and fun. Children can engage in imaginative play by taking on roles themselves or by “projecting” themselves into stuffed animals, dolls, or figurines and making these creatures engage in pretend with one another.

Imaginative play is untaught and universal. It occurs spontaneously in the toddler, preschool, and early school years (ages 2-6). Children around the world play at the types of activities that are common to their culture—they may pretend to be a fireman with a water hose, or to build a canoe and sharpen spears to go fishing. Children do not need to learn to play in this way. Rather, they spontaneously generate pretend play. They just can’t help themselves.

Why do children play? Is imaginative play just a childish amusement to pass time that fizzles out when children go to school, with no social or cognitive consequences? Research has shown that the answer is a definite no. And one central consequence play may have is the strengthening of positive character traits in children, traits like understanding others’ perspectives, feeling empathy, regulating their emotions, feeling compassion and even behaving altruistically. From “becoming another” for a little while, and doing so over and over, children may be developing prosocial traits.

While virtues such as compassion and empathy are instinctual states, they are also deeply affected by a child’s environment, relationships, and learning. Even very young infants have a preliminary sense of right and wrong. For example, when shown a puppet show in which one puppet is helpful, and another puppet is not, and asked which one they like, infants under the age of one years old will choose the helpful puppet (see some of the wonderful work from Kiley Hamlin, Karen Wynn and Paul Bloom on very young babies’ sense of justice and fairness, as well as Paul Bloom’s book Just Babies). Toddlers will help strangers in need (see work by Felix Werneken) and show empathy for others’ pain (see work by Celia Brownell). However, some children are more likely than others to be compassionate to others, or to help out someone in need. These finer grain individual distinctions begin to occur at the same time imaginative play begins: starting at two years old, and increasing throughout the preschool and early school years. Positive character traits are also generally more developed at four and five years old than at two years old.

Why might imaginative play be a force behind the development and refinement of empathy, compassion and other prosocial traits? The central theory is that when a child engages in imaginative play, she steps into another’s shoes and sees the world through someone else’s eyes. The child imagines feeling the joys and sorrows of another person. And that leads the child to take others’ perspectives into account in social interactions.

Martin Hoffman, a Professor of Psychology at New York University and a leading researcher and theorist on the development of empathy, has proposed five ways in which parents and teachers can help children increase their empathy. Four of these five are also features of imaginative play:

1) Permit children to experience a wide range of emotions. Experiencing a range of emotions is typical of imaginative play. Children’s play often involves scenarios that are impossible, difficult, or dangerous in real life. Children can imagine how they would feel if they were a superhero who could save a friend from a dragon. They can imagine how they would feel if they were saved by a superhero. They can try out imagined fear, pride, anger, or shyness during imaginative play without the negative consequences of danger or embarrassment in the real world.

2) Direct children to the internal states of others. In imaginative play children must often explicitly discuss their intentions and emotions and acknowledge the intentions and emotions of others. A child might say to another child “I will be the Mommy and I’m angry and you’ll be the baby and you’re sad.” In this scenario, the child is orienting herself and her partner to the emotional states each person is experiencing, and the social roles each is taking on.

3) Provide role-taking/perspective taking opportunities across contexts. Imaginative play allows children to experience multiple roles in multiple contexts. When children play together, this effect multiplies. Children can become an invented character, but they can also pretend to be the other child they are playing with. They can even imagine what it’s like to be the other child in that child’s imaginary role.

4) Give children lots of affection, and

5) Be a role model by behaving in a prosocial manner and verbalizing your empathic feelings. When children engage in imaginative play with an adult, the interaction between child and adult may be warmer and more fun than daily realistic interactions.  And they get the chance to discuss emotions and thoughts with adults within the play space.

That play can increase character in the very young is a relatively new idea. Only in the last 30 years have psychologists pursued this notion, finding repeatedly that the more children engage in imaginative play, the more skilled they are at recognizing what others are thinking and feeling. Developmental psychologists are now trying to move beyond correlational findings to test, in carefully controlled studies, whether and how engaging in pretend play actually causes understanding of others to develop.

Older children and adults do not typically engage in imaginative play. But the pretend play of children simply takes a new form in adolescence and beyond. Instead of dressing up and playing with friends (excluding theatrical actors, who I discuss below), adults curl up with a book, or watch films and television to imaginatively enter the lives of others. This engagement with fiction is often discussed in one of two non-mutually exclusive ways: as a safe space, or as a simulation of the real social world. Fiction is a safe way to try out reactions to frightening scenarios, such as a dark lake house at night, without having to deal with any possible real world consequences. This is what makes fiction attractive as a pastime. In addition, fiction provides a lens through which we learn about social interactions. Fiction necessarily reduces the details of everyday life to make narrative sense. Stories are abstractions of social events in the real world, and therefore work as “simulations” of those events for the audience member (this theory is the work of Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar). In fact, there is a growing body of research showing that adults’ engagement with reading fiction is associated with increases in social understanding and empathy.

Another form that play takes in adulthood is in the more formalized imaginative play of theatre. In the creation of theatre, actors work with directors, designers, and other actors to perform a script. Together they bring to life characters who interact and experience emotions. Acting, like imaginary play, leads actors to try out a wide variety of emotional states and to interact with a wide variety of different others. Actors must decipher their character’s inner states and emotions from the words of the script. I have shown (in collaboration with Ellen Winner) that children, adolescents, and adults who are given acting training outperform those without acting training when given tests of empathy and social understanding. The experience of acting appears to help people understand others. And with greater understanding may come the behaviors of compassion and altruism.

Is the adult’s experience of entering a fictional world (whether from a novel or from watching a play or film) or acting on stage very different from the four-year-old child’s experience of imaginative play? I think not. Both involve entering into a pretend narrative. In both cases, the rules of reality are suspended and anything can happen. In both cases, the player/viewer/reader focuses on the social world and on social interactions. And in both cases, one emerges out of the play or fictional world and back into the real world with no real world consequences from what has gone on in the imaginary world. Most importantly, both teach the individual about the social world and hence build empathy, a trait necessary for the behaviors of altruism and compassion.

Only humans create and enter into fictional worlds.  This kind of behavior can be seen as a type of rehearsal for social and emotional interactions in the real world. Through imaginative play, children may learn how to find connections between themselves and others that they can not have the opportunity to explore in the real world, either because it’s too difficult, because their social worlds are too limited, or because the connections can only exist in the world of fiction. Imaginative play may look like fun, but for children, it’s a critical part of their work: learning about the world and learning about themselves.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Does imagining what it is like to be another lead just to better social understanding, or does it also lead to more compassionate social behavior? How could we find out?
  2. Can imaginary play teach social interaction better than modeling and imitation?
  3. When learning compassion and altruism, how does imaginary play differ from being told the right thing to do by a parent or teacher?
  4. Should adults (e.g. teachers and parents), guide children’s play towards certain scenarios or topics that cause children to think more about others’ perspectives and emotions, or let children guide themselves?
  5. If imaginative play helps develop character, why do we so often hear about professional actors “behaving badly” (for example, in selfish or self-destructive ways)?
  6. Is the practice of social and emotional skills that children gain in imaginative play the same type of practice as children engaged in programs designed to increase social skills, or is it different?

Discussion Summary


In my original essay, I wrote how imaginative play can increase and develop character through children’s “becoming another” over and over again, therefore learning about others’ emotions and mental states. This seems a fairly obvious point perhaps. Otherwise, why would children spend so much time playing? And why specifically would they spend so much time in the types of activities adults may find banal, such as pretending to be a flight attendant, handing out cookies and pretzels, or a doctor giving shots (both of which I have recently pretended with a 3 year old)? Added to this, recent work by Angeline Lillard, David Sobel, Deena Weisberg and other developmental psychologists has actually found that when given a choice, children will often choose more realistic elements to be included in their pretend play, as opposed to more fantastical elements! It may be that these realistic elements are more easily mapped onto the real world than fantastical elements, and hence children prefer them.

It is interesting there were no comments on the original essay. Often, people want to comment or engage in internet discussions when they disagree or find a topic controversial. But the idea that imaginative play should be a primary component of every child’s life, and that it is central to children’s learning about the social world, is not controversial. Anyone who has spent time with preschoolers sees how quickly and easily they play, regardless of time of day or situation. Yet, at the same time, there is a push for standardized testing and wide spread academic requirements for younger and younger children. There are even standardized test practices for kindergarten classrooms! This is a strange dichotomy: we may have culturally decided play is extraordinarily important for the very young children, but once a child is 5 years old, such things should not take place within the confines of school or other scholastic pursuits. And as seen in the cuts in music, theatre, dance and other arts education for older elementary, middle, and high school students, and the lack of recess in many schools, play is not given the weight it should be given. There must be a balance. A singular focus on testing not only leaves behind children who may learn or test differently than the norm, but also does not leave room for fun. Importantly a lack of play does not leave room for the type of experiences that can build relationships, understanding of others, and empathy for those different than the self.

While there is strong evidence to suggest that children’s play is critically important for understanding of others and character development, there is a lot about play researchers are still exploring. These questions are often in the realm of how exactly children may bring lessons from their play to the real world, and what kinds of lessons they may transfer. For example, we do not know if children who pretend to be morally good think of themselves as morally good in the real world? And conversely, if children who pretend to be “the bad guy” over and over in service of play believe themselves to be less morally good when they end the play and go back into the real world? In laboratory research, we know adults think about their own behavior, even when it is forced (for example, when told they must write an essay that goes against their moral beliefs) they will act out of guilt (and punish themselves) when they feel they have committed a morally incongruent action, even when forced to commit that action (and even when that action was only for a hypothetical situation, not a real one!).  But it is an open question whether children react in the same way. Work in my lab and others is now exploring the situations under which children are more or less likely to transfer information learned in pretend scenarios back to the real world, whether that information is about facts, causes, or social categories. Going forward, it is my hope that play will be respected both for the fun children have when engaging in imagined worlds, and for the learning and growth that can occur through such engagement.

New Big Questions:

  1. How can we balance, or combine, the need to provide children with rigorous academic work and time for free exploration through play?
  2. Does the level of realism in pretend play matter? Might children learn more from pretending to be a doctor than pretending to be a superhero with the power to fly and be invisible?

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