Medical Minute: Imagination Helps Kids’ Self Control

A game of pretend can be a very real way to help a child’s self-control. Jill Colley says it makes it easier for her three-year-old son John to wait for things like dinner.

Jill Colley says, “He understands it’s not ready, and he can play with his dinosaurs or his trucks and his trains and just kind of get lost in his own imagination.”

New research from the University of Washington shows there’s a link between imagination and self-control in three-year-olds.

Researcher Stephanie Carlson found proof in this experimental game. She asked three year olds like john to choose either a tray with two pieces of candy or one with five and told them what they picked would be given away.

Most kids still chose the tray with the most candies, but when John doesn't actually see the candy beforehand, and instead looks at the animal symbols that represent it, he gets it right.

Stephanie Carlson, Ph.D., a psychologist, says, “Symbols help put some space or distance between you and the object of your desire.”

You can use the same strategy with your kids to help control their impulses when they're waiting for a reward.

“You could say that the treats are going to be for your stuffed animals or for your dolls, and in this way it could help a child distance himself or herself from their own current desire.”

Now there’s proof all that imagination can have very real benefits.