Many parents view pretend play as a recreational activity and not a learning experience. The truth is that pretend play skills have huge value. Pretend play can be defined as children acting out stories that involve the emotions and perspectives of different characters. Children use pretend play when manipulating dolls, when dressing up and pretending to be someone else, or by pretending to play with an imaginary person or character. Although these activities seem light-hearted, they have a powerful effect on multiple areas of development.
Social & Emotional Development
Pretend play allows children to play cooperatively, to share with one another, and to develop empathy for another person’s situation. Young children typically see the world through their own eyes without considering the perspective of others. Pretend play opens the door for a child to consider how someone else feels and how a situation may affect more than one person. When children start to show pretend play skills they are usually alone making toys interact with one another. As they become more advanced socially they begin to interact with other children and have more intricate pretend play plots. This often leads to more advanced problem solving skills as children learn to solve a problem that another friend introduces to the pretend play scenario.
It can be extremely interesting to listen to a child’s language during pretend play. As a parent, you may hear an exact replica of phrases and expressions that you regularly use. You may even be surprised at the amount of language your child is using to express himself. Pretend play encourages children to use language skills so that they can explain the actions and the stories that they are using to play. In group pretend play activities, the children must ask questions and explain themselves to peers in order to further the story. Children also learn that language has meaning to the story, which is a skill that will help with reading development.
When children are pretending, they often have a variety of problems to solve. They could be as simple as two children wanting to be the same character in their story, or in a more elaborate story, they could have a mystery to solve and must move through stages of story development. Pretend play also creates abstract thought. Children develop pretend play stories by seeing pictures in their minds and trying to act out those pictures with their bodies. If a child is missing a prop for his story, he must find a way to adapt the materials that are available and solve the problem. All of these skills lead to higher level thinking.
During pretend play children often use both gross and fine motor skills. Pretend play often encourages children to dress and undress in imaginative outfits, so children may be learning to snap, button, tie, and zip. These are all necessary self-help skills that assist with hand-eye coordination. Also, pretend play may encourage large muscle skills as well. When a child on the playground pretends to be a firefighter and climbs to the top of the play structure to save someone from a burning building, she is also working on climbing and visual discrimination.
Pretend Play at Home
It may be more difficult to encourage pretend play at home since your child is not around peers. Many different types of toys encourage pretend play. Items like Little People, Legos, cars and trucks, action figures, and dress up clothing can nurture a pretend play environment. If you don’t have these toys at home, you can create a prop box that will encourage your child to make-believe. Here are some items that you may want to include:
Dr. Sarah Vanover has been working in the field of early childhood education for over 22 years and has had the opportunity to be a teacher, a director, and a trainer for other early childhood educators. She has a passion for making sure that children with special needs receive high-quality early care and education.