Why Pretend Tasks Aren't as Fulfilling For Kids as the Real Deal

by Sanya Pelini September 15, 2017

A baby peeling a carrot

A new study has been released and it suggests that kids don’t really want to play with toys – what they want is the real thing. The research was motivated by the fact that the researchers were unsatisfied with the proclaimed benefits of make-believe play and wanted to examine middle-class preschoolers’ preferences for pretend and real activities. A hundred three- to six-year-olds participated in the study. The kids were presented with nine different scenarios where they were asked whether, for example, they preferred to feed a baby doll or feed a real baby. The study which was conducted at the University of Virginia found that when presented with different activities, kids preferred real to pretend activities. They didn’t want to pretend to bake cookies, they wanted to really bake cookies. They didn’t want to pretend to feed their dolls, they wanted to feed real babies. The kids wanted to cut up real vegetables rather than pretend vegetables. The study highlighted the following issues:
  • The majority of preschool-age kids prefer real activities to their pretend equivalents.
  • The preference for real activities emerged between ages three and four, then was constant through age six.
  • Kids preferred real activities because they found them functional, useful and new.
  • Kids who preferred pretend activities cited being afraid of real activities and also spoke of their lack of ability and lack of permission.

Tips to help kids turn to the real thing

1 | Encourage kids to engage in practical life tasks

Several education philosophies are driven by the belief that kids should engage in practical life tasks. This is the case, for instance, in Montessori schools. These schools propose real kid-sized objects and encourage kids to participate in practical life tasks. Waldorf education also places great emphasis on kids’ participation in practical life tasks. Kids participate in making their meals with kid-sized utensils and cutlery which they're expected to clean put away by themselves afterward.

2 | Encourage kids to practice

Kids don’t learn to do everyday activities if we don’t show them how. Helping your kid to practice means showing him what to do, then giving him opportunities to try out what he’s learned. Active observation is a great way to learn. For example, if you’re dusting, speaking aloud about everywhere you’re dusting helps kids learn about dusting. Encouraging kids to practice also means letting them help. For instance, they may not be able to measure the flour needed to bake cookies but they can help mix the dough.

3 | Allow older kids to care for younger kids

If you have several kids, you’ve probably noticed that the older ones are always very protective of the younger ones. Allowing your kids to watch over the younger ones gives them a sense of responsibility. Although you’ll probably have to supervise or stay close when young kids are involved, simply asking an older kid to “watch over her brother” makes her feel useful. Older kids can also help feed younger ones. For example, they can give the baby their bottle or even other meals under your supervision.

4 | Encourage kids to help in gathering and preparing food

Although young kids might not be able to actually cook meals, they can help. For instance, they can help gather ingredients and even help cut up vegetables and fruits. Kids provided with appropriate utensils can comfortably participate in these tasks.

5 | Get over your fear

When we prevent kids from participating in real life experiences because of our fear, we instill that fear in them. In the study cited above, most kids who shied away from real life experiences did so because they had been taught that the experiences were “dangerous” and to be avoided. Our words shape our kids’ views of themselves. They teach them they are capable or incapable. They teach them to be careful when they try out stuff, or they teach them to fear and avoid new challenges. Supervising can help you get over your fear. You can also get over your fear by proposing a butter knife instead of a sharp knife and by ensuring that your kid has access to real but kid-sized tools. Is the end of the toy industry finally in sight? Probably not, nor does it have to be. Although encouraging kids to participate in real life activities is beneficial, other studies suggest that there are also many advantages associated with specific toys. For instance, research suggests that kids who frequently play with construction toys are better problem-solvers, more creative, and are also more likely to notice finer details. The key undoubtedly lies in taming the toys, proposing multiple and varied activities, fostering constructive boredom, and choosing the right toys.

Sanya Pelini


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