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Pretend Play – How To Get Kids to Focus Using Superheroes

For young children, pretend play is so much more important than just having fun. In a recent study by Dr. Stephanie M. Carlson, University of Minnesota Professor and Reflection Sciences CEO and Co-founder, and U of MN alums Dr. Rachel White, Dr. Emily Prager, and Catherine Schaefer, children who pretend to be their strong-minded hero are more likely to persist at boring tasks and wait longer for rewards. One hundred and eighty children aged 4- to 6-years-old were asked to “be a good helper” and perform a long, tiresome computer task for as long as they could. They were told that if the chore got too boring, they could take a break and play on a nearby tablet.

In one group, the researchers gave children a prop, such as a cape or crown, and asked them to pretend play to be a well-known cartoon superhero, such as Batman or Rapunzel. Over the next 10 minutes, they were periodically asked, “Is Batman or Rapunzel working hard?” This was referred to as the “Exemplar Condition”. The children in the other two groups were either periodically asked, “Am I working hard?” (First Person or Self-Immersed) or, using their own name, “Is —- working hard?” (Third Person).

Those children who were invited to pretend play persevered on the tedious computer task on average 46% of the 10-minute period, the children asked in third-person 36% of the 10-minutes, and the children who were asked in first person/Self-Immersed, only 29% of the 10-minutes.

Researchers speculate that pretending during this tedious task allows the children to see things from a completely different perspective. It activates the brain’s reward system, which reduces anxiety and stress as well as helps children excel on assessments of executive function and emotional regulation. In teenage years, these skills translate to better SAT scores, academic success, and sociability.

See the Wall Street Journal article here.

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