Alison Gopnik, a leading researcher in the field of cognitive development, has been studying the importance of play for children. Lest anyone doubt that fantasy is good for kids, here's what she has to say:
Where does pretending come in? It relates to what philosophers call “counterfactual” thinking, like Einstein wondering what would happen if a train went at the speed of light.
We found children who were better at pretending could reason better about counterfactuals—they were better at thinking about different possibilities. And thinking about possibilities plays a crucial role in the latest understanding about how children learn. The idea is that children at play are like pint-sized scientists testing theories. They imagine ways the world could work and predict the pattern of data that would follow if their theories were true, and then compare that pattern with the pattern they actually see. Even toddlers turn out to be smarter than we would have thought if we ask them the right questions in the right way.
Play is under pressure right now, as parents and policymakers try to make preschools more like schools. But pretend play is not only important for kids; it’s a crucial part of what makes all humans so smart.
You can read more about her studies at Smithsonian Magazine.
And you'll notice that she referred to Albert Einstein, that icon of intelligence. So here's what Einstein himself had to say on the matter:
When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.
[Picture: Frontspiece by Florence Wyman Ivins, from This Singing World edited by Louis Untermeyer, 1935.]