UT researchers explore link between childhood imagination and development

Sarah Seraj

Although a child’s imaginary world may seem foolish to adults, it could help them develop reasoning, problem-solving and social skills.

The UT Imagination and Cognition Lab explores the role of fantasy, imagination and make-believe in childhood development. The lab is led by UT psychology department chair Jacqueline Woolley, whose research focuses on children’s perception of reality versus fantasy and the role this plays in cognitive development.

“The process of imagining the impossible, (which) kids engage in when they’re pretending or believing in fantastical beings, … has potential benefits for cognition,” Woolley said.

Young children believe in fantastical beings, but grow to realize these are not real on their own. The transition from belief to disbelief in a fantastical being, such as Santa Claus, can be helpful to kids, Woolley said. 

“They’ve recognized there’s some uncertainty (about the existence of Santa Claus), and they’re searching for evidence,” Woolley said. “That includes talking to different people and includes looking at the handwriting on the presents and seeing if it matches (their) mom’s. The whole process of disbelief is, to some extent, a scientific endeavor.”

Hui Li, visiting postdoctoral researcher from Tianjin Normal University in China, said make-believe or pretend play can train cognitive resources in the brain. When a child pretends to be someone else or imagines themselves in a fantastical setting, they have to keep in mind both the rules of the make-believe world and the real world and be able to switch from one to another. This helps improve working memory, or the ability to keep information in the mind and use it, and inhibitory control, or the ability to focus and resist distractions.

Sometimes, parents or teachers are not patient with children when it comes to pretend play, Li said. When a child is engaged in a fantastical world of their own, it might be hard for adults to understand what they are doing.

“They will think, ‘Oh, he is so weird!’ or ‘she is so weird,’” Li said. “I really want teachers and parents to just respect their (child’s) pretend play and give them more freedom. If the parents inhibit or forbid (pretend play) and (the children) are not allowed to do it because it is abnormal, I think (that’s) not good for the child’s development.”

The Imagination and Cognition Lab is planning to conduct some studies on the effect of fantasy orientation and pretend play on children’s positive social behaviors such as empathy, said Jenny Nissel, graduate student researcher in the psychology department. Nissel previously ran a pilot study on the effect of narratives on children’s empathy. Preliminary data indicated that kids who heard narratives on orphans expressed more sympathy toward them, which increased their desire to take action by donating. The lab is currently also conducting a study on whether kids prefer the testimony of adults over children when using evidence to determine if something is real or not real.

The link between imaginative endeavors and creative problem-solving has not been explored enough, Woolley said. It is an area of research she wants to expand further on. 

“When you’re imagining a fictional or fantastical situation, you’re engaging in divergent thinking,” she said. “You’re thinking about various alternatives to reality, and it seems like that’s a critical component of creative problem-solving — being able to think outside the box and being able to think of lots of new and unique solutions to a problem.”