The Marvelous and Mysterious Power of Make-Believe

A couple of years ago I heard a fascinating report on NPR news about some child psychology studies that established a strong link between make-believe play and the development of “executive functions” in children (see link on right to report). Executive functions are those operations of the mind having to do with goal-setting, strategizing/planning, self-regulation, self-governing, etc.  Other studies have shown that the maturity of one’s executive functions is the greatest predictor of success (more than IQ, SAT scores, etc.) and that these functions are strikingly undeveloped in the current generation of young adults.

If you have ever observed children engaged in make-believe (I delight observing my own children in this!), it won’t take long to notice that as they pretend they create structure and order in the form of setting goals to pursue in the “game,” assigning roles to the participants (both animate and inanimate!), and establishing rules for the participants to follow.  As the game progresses, you will hear children enforcing these rules on the participants (“you can’t do that!).  Violating one’s assigned role invites a critical response (“But daddy, you’re supposed to be the good knight!) and correction.

After hearing this report my eyes were opened to the meaning of these seemingly mundane childrens’ actions during play.  The connection to executive functions was clear:  they are practicing what independent adults must do but in an imaginary realm.  Every time my 4-year-old son wants to make up a game I will ask him what the goal is and what is his plan for reaching it.  I love to hear him say, “Well, first we’re going to do this and then this, and then…” and also create the rules, e.g. “Rule #1 – No hitting in the face with our swords; Rule #2 – You can’t hide in the bathroom.”

Scripture reveals that we are made in the image of God, sharing certain characteristics with the divine that make us unique among all other creatures and that enable us to fulfill our God-given mandate “to rule and have dominion” over creation as God’s representatives.  Surely our executive functions are among these unique characteristics and the development of them is vital to fulfilling what is called “the cultural mandate.”  Therefore, the paucity of these higher cognitive functions among our youth and the development of them in children should concern Christians greatly.

There is a great deal to explore here.  Later I will share some of my observations of how I see executive functions lacking in high schoolers and speculate on the societal consequences.


4 comments on “The Marvelous and Mysterious Power of Make-Believe

  1. Daniel says:

    So you’re a high school teacher? Very interesting. I’m motivated to take more note of my kids’ play now. It’s fascinating to see the fingerprint of God on things you wouldn’t have noticed before.

    Thanks for pointing it out.


    • Yes. I’m teaching science at a new and rapidly growing Christian school.
      There are many more ways kids employ their rudimentary executive functions in make-believe. I’d love to hear about any you observe!


  2. Adam says:

    I recently read a piece on how make-believe sets goals that are too easily obtainable for children. I’ll have to find it. IIRC, it was by some crazy sports parent, advocating competition – and only competition – as healthy play.

    Anyway, good opening post, though I think if you make a habit of sharing your observations about these missing executive functions, your blog will become decidedly more crotchety.

    • I’d like to see the argument. I think make-believe is more about the process than the immediate goals of the particular make-believe “game” if that is what he means by goals. And the process can become increasingly sophisticated, as I am seeing in my children.

      Good advice. I would rather focus on how to develop them than mourn the absence of them, though I do want to add a little more about how serious the problem of their under-development is.

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