Have you ever watched your child pick up a rock and pretend it is a zooming car, or hop a Lego across the table as if it were a person or a bunny? Have you ever watched a child take a towel and make a cape out of it or pretend to be a superhero? Your child is using an object to represent something else while giving it action and motion. But this pretend play is not as simple as it may seem. Pretending builds skills in many essential developmental areas.
So why is pretend play so important? Children learn about themselves and the world. Dramatic play experiences are some of the first ways children learn about their likes and dislikes, their interests, and their abilities. They experiment with role playing and work to make sense out of what they’ve observed. Just watch children playing with dolls to see examples of this. Dolls often become versions of the child herself and are a safe way for children to express new ideas and feelings. Here are some other important skills learned.
- Social and Emotional Skills
How we interact with others is key to our lifelong success and happiness. Knowing how to read social cues, recognize and regulate emotions, negotiate and take turns, and engage in a long-term activity that is mutually beneficial are no easy tasks. When your child engages in pretend (or dramatic) play, she is actively experimenting with the social and emotional roles of life. Through cooperative play, she learns how to take turns, share responsibility, and creatively problem-solve. When your child pretends to be different characters, she has the experience of “walking in someone else’s shoes,” which helps teach the important moral development skill of empathy
- Life skills
Children work out confusing, scary, or new life issues.Have you ever witnessed children pretending to visit the doctor? One child dutifully holds the mock stethoscope as the others line up for a check-up. More often than not someone gets ‘shots’. This is a child’s way of exploring an experience that is common and sometimes confusing or scary. Through these role plays, children become more comfortable and prepared for life events in a safe way.
- Language Skills
Have you ever listened in as your child engages in imaginary play with his toys or friends? You will probably hear some words and phrases you never thought he knew! In fact, we often hear our own words reflected in the play of children. Kids can do a perfect imitation of mom, dad, and the teacher! Pretend play helps your child understand the power of language. In addition, by pretend playing with others, he learns that words give him the means to reenact a story or organize play. This process helps your child to make the connection between spoken and written language — a skill that will later help him learn to read.
- Thinking Skills
Pretend play provides your child with a variety of problems to solve. Whether it’s two children wanting to play the same role (“I want to be Elsa!” “No, I do!”) or searching for the just right material to make a roof for the playhouse, your child calls upon important cognitive and creative thinking skills that he will use in every aspect of his life, now and forever. Think of children playing ‘grocery’ store. They sort by attributes as they group similar foods in sections of the store, use math concepts to tabulate amounts as they determine prices and calculate grocery bills, use writing to communicate by making signs, experiment with shapes and weights as they organize the store, work collaboratively as they assign roles and play together, and much more.
Nurturing the Imagination
So how do we as parents or teachers nurture more time for pretend play. I came up with some fun ways to create different scenarios for children’s play as well as links to 32 fun resources and printables for pretend play.
- Use a box. One of the easiest ways to pretend is an empty box. With a little imagination, this plain box can become a racecar, spaceship, boat, TV, home, table, or more.
- Consider creating a prop box or corner filled with objects to spark your preschooler’s fantasy world. You might include:
- Old clothes, shoes, backpacks, hats, old work clothes
- Old telephones, phone books, magazines
- Cooking utensils, dishes, plastic food containers, table napkins, silk flowers
- Stuffed animals and dolls of all sizes
- Fabric pieces, blankets, or old sheets for making costumes or a fort
- Theme-appropriate materials such as postcards, used plane tickets, foreign coins, and photos for a pretend vacation trip
- Use stories. Invite your children to recreate a favorite story or take it further and add their own twist. During your pretending game, prompt their ideas by asking questions like: “What do you think happened next?” and “What if the dog didn’t find his bone?”
- Build a fort. We do this a lot in the winter time by our fireplace. The girls pretend they are camping and we will make s’mores or hotdogs on the fire.
- Provide dolls and puppets. Make sure your child has ample and regular access to things like dolls, stuffed animals, or puppets. These don’t have to be expensive or store-bought; they can be cut out of paper or made from socks. Through imaginative play, children easily ascribe feelings and ideas to these ‘people’ and ‘animals’ and often use them to express, explore and work out their own ideas, thoughts, and feelings.
- Have a weekly theme. Use a center in your school or a small area in your home and turn it into an area just for pretend play. Some weekly theme ideas are:
- Doctor’s office – We built our own stethoscopes out of milk and soda caps.
- Restaurant – Have a menu order form and take turns ordering food items.
- Business office – My kids have pens and a notepad to write important documents. We also have an old computer and keyboard that they use to type on.
- Library – We make pretend library cards and have the kids “stamp” a book at checkout. (Use this sheet instead of marking in your book.
- School – what kid doesn’t want to be the teacher? I print out extra work sheets and have a pointer to use for the “teacher”.
- Post-office – This is a great way to practice writing letters. Decorate your mailbox and put by each child’s desk or bedroom door. Then take turns writing different types of letters, postcards, etc and mailing them.
- DMV – this may not sound like fun but my preschoolers love making their own license plates for their (box) car and a driver’s license to go with it.
- Veterinarian’s office or Zoo – You can reuse the stethoscopes from the doctors for this one and have each child take turns bringing in their pet and getting it checked. Or use blocks to make “cages” and put animals in each cage. Then walk through your zoo and admire the animals.
- Sports team or gym – This is fun if you have old uniforms to use. We have tons of cheerleading items (I coach cheerleading) so the kids create a cheer and use the trampoline for practice. They also will have races from one end of the kitchen to the other. You could even use old pillow cases and have a potato sack race.
- Play or Movie – Use these tickets to allow entrance into your child’s play or save for a movie night and give one for entrance to the movie and one for popcorn.
- Grocery store – I use a grocery list (I try to add something from each of the four food groups) and have them pretend to shop with play food. I will also clean out old containers (macaroni or cereal boxes, or any trial size item) to use in their grocery store.
- Make time. No material, environment, or story can take the place of uninterrupted time to play and explore ideas. Pretend play doesn’t fit nicely into twenty-minute segments. Be ok with leaving a post office or fort in the living room for a few days to allow your children to fully explore and enhance their creative explorations.
As you can see, my own five year old is quite active in pretend play. But even my nine year old will still play teacher or office with her occasionally. And my 15 year old helps her make extravagant forts all over the house. This is the year I will be using even more pretend play than I usually do in my preschool teaching as well, just because of the importance. Happy playing!