It has long been hypothesized that pretend play is beneficial to social and cognitive development. However, there is little evidence regarding the neural regions that are active while children engage in pretend play. We examined the activation of prefrontal and posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) regions using near-infrared spectroscopy while 42 4- to 8-year-old children freely played with dolls or tablet games with a social partner or by themselves. Social play activated right prefrontal regions more than solo play. Children engaged the pSTS during solo doll play but not during solo tablet play, suggesting they were rehearsing social cognitive skills more with dolls. These findings suggest social play utilizes multiple neural regions and highlight how doll play can achieve similar patterns of activation, even when children play by themselves. Doll play may provide a unique opportunity for children to practice social interactions important for developing social-emotional skills, such as empathy.
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