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Childhood pretend play connected to religious switching, study finds
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Childhood pretend play has numerous effects, but one study found it is associated with religiosity. - photo by Massarah Mikati
A child's imagination during pretend play can take them from a walk around Mars to a picnic in Neverland. However, his or her travels don't stop there. Pretend play may also lead them on a religious journey in his or her adult life.

A study published in current issue of The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, explored the relationship between childhood pretend play and religiosity, finding that people who intensely engaged in pretend play as children were more likely to change their religious identity later in life.

While the research was conducted in Canada, changing religious identity is common throughout America, according to a recent study from Pew Research Center. The survey found that 19.2 percent of U.S. adults left Christianity and 4.2 percent joined the faith, while non-Christian faiths lost 1.4 percent of U.S. adults and gained 2.6 percent.

Chris Burris, the study's author and professor of psychology at St. Jerome's University, said he has an interest in the social psychology of religion and wondered how religion and pretend play would be related.

Pretend play among children is known for enhancing cognitive development, from better social and emotional processing skills to increased vocabulary. Burris hypothesized the essence of make-believe is applicable to that of religion.

"Religion and spirituality requires the participant to go beyond a 'what you see is what you get' way of relation to the world," Burris said. "It's about the unseen, it's about metaphor. Well, pretend play does the same thing."

Pretend play and religious identity

Burris' study identified five groups of people through a survey distributed to 431 undergraduate students at University of Waterloo:

1. Lifelong religious People who have the same religious identity as they did in their childhood.

2. Lifelong nonreligious People who identified as agnostic, atheist or nonreligious as children and today.

3. Converts People who were nonreligious as children and do identify with a religion today.

4. Switchers People who identified with one religion as children, but have switched into a different religion as adults.

5. Apostates People who were religious as children, but are now agnostic, nonreligious or atheist.

Researchers asked participants in each group whether they engaged in pretend play as children, played alone or with friends, use props or imaginary characters, and how engrossed were they in their play.

The study found the two lifelong groups lifelong religious and lifelong nonreligious were very similar in not engaging in pretend play as children. The groups of people who underwent significant shifts in religious identity, however, were all immersed in pretend play as children, with apostates leading the pack.

While the findings do not mean pretend play causes shifts in religious identity, Burris said there could be an underlying process.

"Pretend play is a way of answering the question, 'What would it be like if...?'" Burris explained. "It's about trying on different possible answers to the question. People who used to (play pretend) seem to develop that skill set early on such that for whatever reason, they ask the question in their real life in a big way later on."

While the apostate group had the highest correlation with childhood pretend play, though, Burris said this is in no way an indication pretend play is anti-religious.

"Religion and spirituality depend on the same capacities, the same skills that pretend play requires," he said. "It's about the ability to keep the story in the head. You have to see beyond what your senses are giving you, go beyond a what-you-see-is-what-you-get world."

However, Burris speculated the higher correlation for apostates is because of the shift from structure common among religious institutions to unstructured that is found in pretend play.

"The realm of the nonbeliever is much less structured than the realm of belief is," he explained. "People's cognitive, intellectual and emotional needs are not met sufficiently by faith traditions, so they strike out on their own way."

Pretend play: special effects

The effects of childhood pretend play have been studied extensively, and Dorothy Singer, a professor at Yale University who has studied pretend play for decades, believes every child should be encouraged to pretend play and reap the benefits.

According to Singer, children who pretend play whom she calls "little explorers" see more cognitive, social, emotional and physical developments relative to children who do not pretend play.

In her research, Singer has found children who pretend play tend to have greater self-confidence and lower anxiety than those who do not.

"If you're pretending you're in a box and driving your car, you're feeling very much in control and very self-confident in yourself. It gives children the sense to take a larger world and bring it down to size to play," she explained. "And children who play seem much less anxious because through their imagination they're able to handle a difficult situation."

They also have better problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills, share more and are less aggressive. According to Singer, playtime is a form of relaxation because it releases energy and reduces tension.

However, most commonly, Singer found children who pretend play have an extreme amount of focus and do not like being interrupted, something Burris witnessed when he was 10 years old while visiting extended family.

He recalls his 3-year-old cousin sitting on the kitchen floor and pretending she was driving a car, but her playtime coincided with lunchtime.

When her mom told her to put on her jacket and shoes so they could leave, she refused.

"I have to stop this car first!" she insisted.

So her mom began dragging her to the door, but Burris' cousin wasn't having it she continued to kick, scream and cry: "I have to stop this car!"

"It was real to her," Burris said. "It was real enough. And we can feed that back into religion nobody can argue with the subjective reality."

Such concentration transports children to a different world, beyond the "what you see is what you get," and can later transform little explorers into big explorers discovering alternative forms of faith or no faith.

"You can't imagine something that you've never been exposed to before," Singer said. "But children who have good imagination are much better at picturing and navigating this."
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