This subject can actually get quite complex, because we are delving into the inner workings of the developing brain, with billions of neurons. However, as much as we have to learn, we do know some things. I will try to break down this subject of how pretend can be beneficial for development.
Everyone knows that kids pretend. It’s often considered a frivolous, useless activity. I find this a curious conclusion. Why would kids all over the world, no matter the culture, engage in pretend play if it was so useless? Why are our brains wired to do this if it is so devoid of value?
Have you ever considered the reasons why children engage in pretend play, or “pretense”? Well, cognitive researchers have, and the findings are interesting:
1) Children pretend in order to learn the ability to represent a “strategy map” (if you will excuse my liberal use of that term). Instead of being truly “in” the situation, they can learn to think many steps ahead. It is basically like practice for the problem solving machinery in the brain.
2) Pretense can develop these problem-solving skills in the absence of performance based stress. Think about having consequences to your own safety and the expectations of adults always “weighing” on your decisions. You are most likely going to always pick the “safest”, most familiar solution. You are likely to not be very creative in this situation. But in pretend play, you can be anyone and you can be anywhere!
3) Pretense can even help kids develop empathy, by being able to picture themselves in someone else’s shoes.
4) Pretending can deepen kinetic understanding (a term I will coin here). Pretending, literally, to move with someone else’s patterns and rhythms can promote a much deeper feel for a movement, or what we might call “second nature”.
Now, obviously, children need to learn how to function in the real world. Hopefully, the reasons above give us some pause in wanting to hurry this process. We may want to let the “weapons” of thought processing and creativity develop a little bit more before we send them off to “war”. See, I was just pretending there to understand the process of development in a different way. I pretended that the kids were “life” soldiers in a war to improve the way we think!
How the heck does this relate to athletic pursuits? C’mon, you already know the answer to this. How many of you pretended you were Michael Jordan on the court growing up? How many of you are pretty sure that Michael Jordan at least some of the time, pretended to be Dr. J growing up?
You see, pretending gives us the ability to explore things without the pressure of being “us”.
Try it in a practice.
Have the kids on your team pick a name of a sports star out of a hat. They are then charged with moving like that player, and doing what they think that player would do in a game.
Take it one step further, and have them make up their own characters in the next practice. Then talk about what they learned. How successful were their character plays?
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