Thalia R. Goldstein and Matthew D. Lerner, “Dramatic Pretend Play Games Uniquely Improve Emotional Control in Young Children,” Developmental Science 21, no. 4 (2018): e12603.


Researchers conducted a randomized control trial of dramatic pretend play games with a group of 79 children from low socioeconomic households to test whether dramatic pretend play causes generalized improvements in multiple social and emotional outcomes. Researchers found specific effects of dramatic play games only on emotional self-control, but not on social skills, such as helping or empathy. Study findings have implications for the function of dramatic pretend play and design of interventions to improve emotional control in children. Further, they demonstrate the unique role that dramatic pretend play games can have for young children, particularly those from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.

Key Findings:

  • Dramatic pretend play games improved emotional control across two tasks and one observation-based measure in children from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • Dramatic pretend play games did not positively affect empathy and theory of mind, demonstrating implications for the sequence of development of social and emotional skills.
  • Neither a guided block play intervention nor a guided storytime activity increased emotional control as much as the dramatic pretend play intervention over the course of eight weeks.
  • Findings suggest that dramatic pretend play games involving physicalizing emotional states and traits, pretending to be animals and human characters, and engaging in pretend scenarios in a small group may improve children’s emotional control (but not necessarily their empathy or altruism).

Significance of the Findings:

  • Drama games may be one way to reach children with higher levels of personal distress and decreased emotional regulation skills, to implicitly teach healthy social skills.
  • Because the intervention condition was compared with two other control conditions, this shows the way in which drama may affect children through their physical practice of emotional states and in social situations.


Children were randomly assigned to groups within their classrooms so that the classes would not be conflated with the intervention group. Participating children engaged in drama games three times a week, for 30 minutes each time. Children were tested before the intervention and again after the intervention so that preexisting differences between groups could be controlled for in the post-test. Research assistants who did not know the hypothesis of the study guided the children through the 24 sessions of the intervention. The same research assistants guided the experimental groups and the block play and storytime control groups.

Children were between four and six years old before the eight-week intervention began. The sample representation was 50.5% male and 49.5% female. The school was income capped, and the mean level of education for parents of children attending the school was just above high school graduate.

The children were ethnically identified by their parents as East Asian (45 children), Central American (six children), Latin American (five children), as mixed race (five children), Caribbean (four children), black (three children), Southeast Asian (two children) and European White (one child) and Arab (one child). Twenty-eight children participated in the entire role play intervention, 28 participated in the block play and 23 participated in the storytime. Seven children began the intervention but were not included in the final data set due to availability.

Limitations of the Research:

  • Because the sample size was only 97 children, who predominately identified as East Asian and were from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, the study is limited in its generalizability to other demographic groups.
  • There was no longitudinal follow up with the children, so researchers do not know if effects on emotional control were maintained over time.
  • Emotional control and executive function effects are assumed from the measures, but no physiological or direct measures of either of these skills are in the study.

Questions to Guide New Research:

  • What age group best benefits from dramatic pretend play games?
  • How much should dramatic pretend play games be guided, and how much direction should come from the children?
  • Are there individual differences in the effects of dramatic pretend play based on temperament, fantasy orientation, cognitive differences or other factors?
  • What are the varying levels of intensity, duration and depth of drama games that may cause differences for children?