Role of imaginative play in cognitive development

Fink, R. S. (1976). Role of imaginative play in cognitive development. Psychological Reports, 39: 895-906.1


This study addresses the potential roles of imaginative play (or creative role-playing) on two foundational cognitive abilities of children initially identified by pioneering developmental psychologist and educational theorist Jean Piaget— “conservation” and “perspectivism.” Conservation refers to an individual’s understanding that attributes of persons or objects in their environment may remain constant when these persons or things take on additional attributes, while perspectivism refers to the understanding that relationships remain despite physical or social changes. The experimental study involved random assignment of 36 kindergarten children to one of three groups that received different treatments. Findings indicate that adult-coached imaginative play contributes to important social developments in children.

Key Findings:

Students in a coached-play group exhibited higher levels of imaginative playfulness, linked to developmental gains associated with social roles, than the other groups. While all groups showed improvement on conservation and perspective-taking tasks, only the coached group consistently improved in these areas.

Significance of the Findings:

This study provides evidence that, given appropriate modeling and resources, the imaginative play of young children can result in important developmental gains. It offers useful guidance for classroom activities, and supports the existing research on the ability of imaginative or dramatic play to enhance psychological and intellectual development.


Thirty-six kindergarten students were randomly assigned to one of three conditions to see how play shaped their development of conservation and perspectivism. Conservation is the ability to understand a person or object is constant even when it takes on additional attributes (e.g., a mother who becomes a policewoman would still be a mother). The study looked at two types of perspectivism, physical perspectivism (the landscape remains the same even if one looks at it from different vantage points) and social perspectivism (understanding relations within a network, e.g., a cousin to you can also be an uncle to someone else).

The structured play condition consisted of four-person student groups meeting twice a week for a month to engage in thematic play facilitated by an adult. The second condition used an identical group sizing and meeting schedule, but students engaged in free play. The third condition was a control in which students engaged in regular class activities. Five trained observers observed the students before, during, and after the experiment to measure students’ levels of playfulness and exhibited understandings of conservation, physical perspectivism, and social perspectivism.

Limitations of the Research:

The researcher used only observation to measure students’ conservation and perspectivism. Using another measure of these cognitive skills in combination with observation would have made the findings stronger.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Are certain play themes and scenarios more effective in helping children develop conservation and perspectivism skills? What other developmental skills are supported through structured play?

1The text of this summary is adapted from the Arts Education Partnership’s 2002 research compendium: Deasy, R. J. (Ed.). (2002). Critical links: Learning in the arts and student academic and social development. Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership.