It has always been considered that 'imaginative play' like making dolls talk and making toy cars go vroooom was vital to a child's developing intellect, but the new study (which examined data from 150 previous studies) found little or no correlation.
Angeline Lillard, the study's lead author, said that much of the previous 'evidence' to pretend play's importance came from flawed methodology. She said testers might have been biased by knowledge, and were testing children who had engaged in adult-directed pretend play prior to testing.
"We found no good evidence that pretend play contributes to creativity, intelligence or problem-solving," Angeline said. "However, we did find evidence that it just might be a factor contributing to language, storytelling, social development and self-regulation."
She added that it could be tricky for psychologists to separate whether children who engage in pretend play are already creative and imaginative, or if the pretend play - which is often encouraged by parents or teachers - does actually promote development.
"When you look at the research that has been done to test that, it comes up really short," she said. "It may be that we've been testing the wrong things; and it may well be that when a future experiment is really well done we may find something that pretend play does for development, but at this point these claims are all overheated. This is our conclusion from having really carefully read the studies."
Various elements are often present during pretend play, she explained, the freedom to make choices and pursue one's own interests, negotiation with peers and physical interaction with real objects. These, she claims, are valuable, especially with appropriate levels of adult guidance.
She added that these elements exist both in pretend play and in other playful preschool activities that encourage children to discover their own interests and talents, much like the methods used in Montessori schools.
It is also important diagnostically for children between 18 months and 2 years old, she said, and warned that a complete absence of pretend play among children of that age range could indicate autism.
She also called for more time to be devoted to play - rather than preparation for tests - in schools.
"Play time in school is important," Lillard said. "We found evidence that – when a school day consists mostly of sitting at desks listening to teachers – recess restores attention and that physical exercise improves learning."
And despite the findings, she said that children and adults should continue with make believe play: "If adults enjoy doing it with children, it provides a happy context for positive adult-child interaction, a very important contributor to children's healthy development," she said.
What do you think? Do you encourage 'let's pretend' with your children?
More on Parentdish: Our hilarious guide to the rules of role play