The Real Science of Make Believe


A banana rings in the kitchen. Your child picks it up and asks who’s there. “Yeah. Uh huh. She’s not home right now can I take a message? OK I’ll tell her,” they say before peeling and eating it for snack. You might grin in adoration at the classic banana phone routine, but while it might seem like nothing more than simple fun, there is a storm of cognitive function brewing.

That storm is all a part of basic human evolution and can have extraordinary benefits to mental growth and stimulation. As it turns out make believe isn’t just play, it’s science.

While it might seem a little odd to break down the brain science of a tea party, researchers for decades have been doing just that. In a 1999 paper from Rutgers University, “A cognitive theory of pretense,” Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich theorized that pretend play fills the evolutionary need to facilitate reasoning about hypothetical situations. In other words, behind those action figure fist fights are real-world lessons about good guys and bad guys, about right and wrong.

This reasoning occurs not in consciously-accepted role play (as grownups like to do in any number of workplace seminars), but in a separate part of the mind entirely, they theorize — in a sort of alternate world that allows for outlandish, often impossible scenarios with different sets of rules. That world feeds and is fed from the part of the brain that thinks rationally about behavior and desire. Once kids transition into that world of pretend, they enter into sort of a safe space in which they can practice anything from social norms to morality to the basic functions of a choo choo train.

The sillier the scenario (Gen. Banana takes an army of fruit to war; best-friend cats climb a mountain to find treasure; a waiter serves a patron a plate of snow balls, etc.), the easier it is to detach from the often difficult real world for some useful subconscious reasoning in the pretend world. Kids might not necessarily understand why mommy and daddy sometimes argue, but by acting it out with toys, they might be able to begin to understand the nature of disagreements and the effective ways of handling them.

And while pretend can exist entirely in the mind, the role of toys or props is important. With toys like dolls and action figures, or the more elaborate building block worlds of Playmobil, kids are given people and environments on which to project their pretense.


In 2005, Playmobil and Yale researcher Dr. Dorothy Singer developed the Recommended Daily Allowance of Play to encourage kids and parents to accept make-believe time as necessary to cognitive growth. The RDA of Play suggested at least 30 minutes of pretend play a day in a space designated for make-believe that was free of rules like picking up toys.

“By following the RDA of Play, children will gain cognitive, language, emotional, social and physical skills that help them become productive and happy adults. The cognitive benefits range from abstract thinking to creativity and mastering new concepts like logic and math, all of which, according to Dr. Singer, are essential for adults to thrive in today’s busy world,” Playmobil wrote in a press release.

In addition to inspiring profound effects later down the road, pretend play can help kids work out real world issues in their present lives. Play therapists have been helping kids cope with stress and tragedy for decades.

“Therapists strategically utilize play therapy to help children express what is troubling them when they do not have the verbal language to express their thoughts and feelings,” writes the Association for Play Therapy on their website. “Play provides a safe psychological distance from their problems and allows expression of thoughts and feelings appropriate to their development.”

By moving to that alternate world, that separate part of their minds, kids are able to express themselves freely, without really realizing they’re expressing themselves freely. To them it’s simply a natural way to think and explore. So while “play” is often thought of as just kids having fun, it’s really more of a deeply profound evolutionary skill that allows exploration of morality, emotion and social behavior.

That said, nobody’s saying play should be taken so seriously. It’s a vital part of growing and learning, and should be encouraged to aid kids’ development into healthy, functional adults, but play will always be playful. A banana phone doesn’t necessarily require deep decoding, but it might be important to listen to what kids are saying into the banana. Just make sure to pick it up and play along when it’s ringing for you.



One response »

  1. Pingback: The True Cost of Toys, Part 2 | Kazoodles Blog

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