Make Believe Play Boosts Learning and School-Readiness in Preschoolers, Yale Study Finds

A Yale study shows that make believe play enhances school-readiness skills in children, particularly those from low-income families.

Dorothy and Jerome Singer, directors of the Yale Family Television Research and Consultation Center, found that training low-income parents and inner city daycare teachers to engage three-to five-year-olds in make believe play can significantly strengthen children's skills for succeeding in school. Nearly a third of U.S. children, especially children from poor families, start kindergarten lacking basic skills for learning.

"Play is fun, easy to do, requires no special training, costs nothing and can help children, especially those at risk for school failure, succeed in school," said Jerome Singer, who is also professor of psychology and in the Yale Child Study Center. "After training parents and caregivers for just two weeks, the children showed measurable gains in key school-readiness skills ranging from enhanced vocabulary and language usage to counting, fine motor control and social/emotional growth."

Unlike rote learning, which isn't much fun, Jerome Singer said, learning through play is intrinsically motivating. It's fun for children and adults. He said play can miniaturize a part of the complex world children experience, reduce it to understandable dimensions, manipulate it and help them begin to understand how it works.

"Through the shared laughter and joy of play, adults, even those with limited literacy skills, can become full partners in children's development," said Jerome Singer. "The activities that are the easiest, cheapest and most fun to do, such as singing, playing games, reading, story-telling, and just talking and listening, are also the best for child development."

To train parents and caregivers, the husband and wife team developed a video-based training program called Learning Through Play for School Readiness, along with Emmy award-winning producer/director Harvey F. Bellin of the Media Group of Connecticut. A U.S. Department of Education Early Childhood Institute grant funded the video.

The program teaches adults learning games adapted from the Singers' book, "Make Believe: Games and Activities to Foster Imaginative Play in Young Children." The games can be played in homes, preschools or other childcare settings using common household objects such as cardboard boxes, bags and socks. Each game engages children in a simple make believe story with multiple opportunities to practice specific ready-to-learn skills.

The program was extensively revised and refined through two years of testing with low-income families and inner city preschools. Testing began with the parents of 103 children in New Haven. Testing continued with 107 additional children who had caregivers, as well as parents, go through the training. The Singers found even more of an improvement when parents and caregivers were trained to play learning games.

The final phase of research included 77 teachers at 29 daycare centers in Atlanta and Los Angeles and confirmed the training program's effectiveness in other low-income communities.

At the end of testing, 2,700 free copies of Learning Through Play for School Readiness were sent to Head Start centers, public libraries, PBS Ready-to-Learn directors and other organizations that serve low-income communities across the country.

"Any parent, relative, preschool teacher, home care provider or other caregiver can easily apply our research findings on their own," said Dorothy Singer, research scientist in psychology and at the Yale Child Study Center. "Simply play make believe stories with children -- a trip to the moon, a birthday party, a visit to the local library, zoo or post office. Find opportunities in the story to practice new words, counting, social skills such as politeness and sharing, movements, and using school supplies such as drawing pictures with crayons."