Pretending with realistic and fantastical stories facilitates executive function in 3-year-old children

Rachel E. White, Stephanie M. Carlson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Fictional stories can affect many aspects of children's behavior and cognition, yet little is known about how they might help or hinder children's executive function skills. The current study investigated the role of story content (fantasy or reality) and mode of engagement with the story (pretense or a non-pretense control) on children's inhibitory control, an important component of early executive function. A total of 60 3-year-olds were randomly assigned to hear a fantastical or realistic story and were encouraged to engage in either pretense or a non-pretense activity related to the story. They then completed the Less Is More task of inhibitory control. Story content had no impact on children's inhibitory control; children performed equally well after hearing a fantastical or realistic story. However, children who engaged in story-related pretend play showed greater inhibitory control than those who engaged in a non-pretense activity. We found no interaction between story content and play engagement type. These results held when controlling for baseline inhibitory control, receptive vocabulary, age, gender, affect, and propensity toward pretense. Therefore, mode of play engagement with a story was more important in promoting children's inhibitory control skills than the degree of realism in the story.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number105090
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
StatePublished - Jul 1 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development jointly with the U.S. Department of Education ( R01HD051495 ) awarded to S.M.C. and by the National Institutes of Health under a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award ( 5T32HD007151 ) awarded to R.E.W. through the University of Minnesota Cognitive Science Center. The authors thank Zachary Holmquist, M.J. Heise, Ashley Wahl, Hannah Saunders, Catherine Schaefer, Kristen Shodeen, and Jianyi Yang for research support.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier Inc.


  • Executive function
  • Fantasy and reality
  • Fiction
  • Inhibitory control
  • Pretense
  • Stories


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