Goldstein, T. R., & Lerner, M. D. (2017). Dramatic pretend play games uniquely improve emotional control in young children. Developmental Science.Young 4 years old children (n=97) participated in the first randomized controlled trial (RCT) testing the relations between social development and role playing. The results show dramatic pretend play activities improve only emotional control (not affective empathy, neither theory of mind, neither prosocial behaviors).
The intervention lasted 8 weeks and were divided in 24 sessions of 30 minutes. Two control groups were tested alongside the pretend play group: a story time group and a block building group. These two groups help control narrative elements, character and emotion embodiment elements, collaborative activities and fine motor skills elements. The intervention was assessed one week after the last session, so there is no measure on a possible fading of the effect on mid- or long-terms.
Dramatic pretend play games (DPPG) are « short, engaging activities, led by an adult, that involve an individual child or small group of children engaging in creating movement and sound based on a prompt about a character, situation, animal, emotion or idea. »They are based on Viola Spolin drama theater play's exercices.
« Emotional control is associated with academic competence, prosocial understanding and behavior, and behavioral control is associated with lifetime achievement. » « Children who experience more personal distress in response to others’ distress have been found to show less prosocial behavior. »
« Therefore, these results could have emerged because children in the DPPG group gained an ability to task switch, to distance themselves from emotionally charged situations, to see themselves as separated, and to control their reactions based on their distance from someone else’s distress, rather than affecting emotional control directly. »
The authors note that « The distinction between fantastical pretense and more “real-world” pretense, and how each type of pretense affects emotional control, is an important direction for future work. »
Links to go further:
- The study (original pay-walled on Wiley or postpublication on ResearchGate)
- A good popularized article by the lead author
- The SSIT research lab