Play Better #4: The Importance of Pretend Play in Child Development

Where in this world can you find firemen, doctors, zookeepers, astronauts, movie stars, and chefs, all working alongside one another in harmony and delight?

In a single room of make believe, of course.
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Pretend play, also known as imaginative, symbolic, or representational play, is when make-believe scenarios are created and a child pretends that objects are something else, and take on different roles themselves. This type of play, particularly for children under 3 years of age, is easy to miss or dismiss as unimportant. The truth, however, is that pretend play often goes a long way in developing a child’s problem-solving and coordination skills, social integration, and lateral thinking abilities. Imagine the skills required to turn the sandbox into a Egyptian excavation site!

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Many parents believe that technological activities are suitable replacements for hands-on pretend play. This perspective is understandable because video games and Internet games suck children into otherworldly situations that took a lot of imagination to conceive. However, the bulk of the ‘imagining’ was done by professional game designers and storyboard developers rather than the children themselves. Although such games have a place in modern childhood, they are not quite yet adequate replacements for traditional pretend play. Kids need opportunities to imagine, and they need to start from scratch. Usually by age three, children begin to talk about imaginary friends and made-up scenarios. Parents usually get a good laugh from such tales, but pretend play provides so much more than humor for grown-ups. The list of benefits from pretend play is endless, but just consider these few significant ones:

1. Language Development
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, much to our own surprise (or shock), we often hear our own words and intonation reflected in their speech. Children usually mimic words and ideas heard at home, school, and daycare, even if they don’t know the precise meanings. However, repetition builds vocabulary and helps kids visualize what they say, especially when adults offer feedback to help kids better understand the words they use. Kids who participate in pretend play tend to have an advanced understanding of grammar as well. They probably do not know the rules, but they train themselves to speak the way that adults do. As children’s language skills improve, they can create more and more exciting scenarios. Thus, pretend play begins a cycle of imagination that feeds back into itself.

2. Problem Solving Skills
Role playing games lead children to face situations that far exceed kids’ real-life experiences. Children have to find solutions to dilemmas that they create, usually situations related to things they observe in their parents’ lives. Therefore, solutions often mimic those that parents choose in similar circumstances. Although kids may not always act logically during tough pretend dilemmas, the very process of problem solving becomes habitual. By practicing problem solving in an artificial environment, kids are better prepared to think of creative solutions to their own real-life problems.

3. Cognitive & Academic Development
Children are more likely to learn difficult and uninteresting material when parents and teachers transform those lessons into games that are fun and engaging. One example of this is trying to teach kids addition and subtraction. To liven up these lessons, teachers can create a pretend grocery store. Students can use pretend fruit and vegetables to learn new math skills. Instead of doing problems on paper, kids can show their new understanding by pretending they are cashiers at the store. The teacher can ask students to bag two apples, then three more apples. Kids can see with their own eyes that three apples added to two apples equals five total apples in the bag. This kind of learning doesn’t just stop in the classroom. Many students would keep practicing that math lesson at home with or without formal homework

4. Social Integration
Whether playing with real friends or imaginary characters, pretend play requires kids to look outside of their own needs and desires. It helps children learn compassion, empathy, and understanding. Outgoing children learn the proper boundaries of interaction through modeling, and shy kids get to practice social interaction within their comfort zone. Indeed, mock social situations remind children of how grown-ups in their own lives treat those around them. Parents who are aware of this can impact their children’s social habits for the better by setting a positive example.

5. Impulse Control
Ever wondered why young kids of today have far less self-control as that compared to kids of yesteryears? A large part of it can be attributed to the fact that kids do not engage in enough pretend play anymore. During pretend play, children have to take on a role and play within those boundaries, especially when other kids are involved. This enforces a behavioral and speech ‘filter’ that makes them think more carefully before doing or saying something out of line or context. In fact, studies have shown that children control their impulses significantly better during pretend play than at other times. For this reason, transforming an unappealing task into a make-believe game is a popular trick among clever parents and educators to nurture impulse control in a child.

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Getting down to your child’s level and playing like a kid yourself will effect parent-child bonding that is precious, strong, and difficult to reproduce with any other situation; not to mention that all parties involved are sure to have fun in the process. If you’re new to the idea of participating in pretend play, keep in mind the following points to help you through your first play session:

1. Observe your child’s interests, and follow suit. 
After you have put out a few pretend toys, watch and see what catches his interest. If he picks up a toy phone, pick up another and ‘answer’ his call. If he starts to push a truck, push another one along his. Your child will be motivated to play with you if you follow his lead.

2. That said, don’t put out too many toys at once.
This can be overwhelming to some children, and may even cause them to lose interest altogether and shift their attention to something else. Keep it simple at all times. You’ll be surprised at how little it actually takes to delight and spark a child’s imagination.

3. Expose your child to new experiences.
Every time you go somewhere new with your child, this becomes the raw material for pretend play. A trip to the zoo can spark a whole new play theme for your child. Books also allow you to introduce imaginary themes to your child which can later be incorporated into pretend play. After all, what better age is there to be on the moon, or wriggle around the room like a very hungry caterpillar, or to just simply be where all the wild things are?

4. Don’t just watch from the sidelines – get into it!
Let’s face it, there has probably been a good twenty to thirty -or even forty- years since you last played pretend. It’s not uncommon to feel uncomfortable or even somewhat ’embarrassed’ about losing all your inhibitions and getting silly. Often, what happens as a result of our own self-consciousness is that we then adopt a ‘narrator’ role when playing, providing a play-by-play commentary from the sidelines about what your child is doing. Phrases like, “Wow, Allymae is baking cookies in the oven“, or “Hmm, Jacob is looking for clues at the crime scene” happens more than it should; when really, what we should be saying is, “Here’s the chocolate chips for your cookies, Allymae“, or “Look, Jacob! A paw print!

Being ‘in‘ play (as opposed to just being ‘alongside‘ play) allows for more interaction, conversation, and play stimulation. The amount of life experience and knowledge you have ahead of them should be utilized to enhance the learning value of your pretend play session. For instance, little Allymae might not be aware that flour and sugar goes into making her cookies; and by casually passing her some, you just taught her how.

5. And if your child doesn’t know how to pretend yet…
Then unfortunately, you might just need to be the one to get the pretend ball rolling. Pick up a toy your child likes and do one simple action yourself to give your child the idea. For example, you could demonstrate some self-pretend by picking up a toy cup and pretend to drink, saying “mmm…yummy juice”. Then put the cup in front of your child and wait to see if he imitates you. If he doesn’t, that toy may not interest your child. Try to observe your child’s interests to determine if something else might be more interesting to him
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While many toy trends have come and gone, there are a few tried, tested, and true, toys that are pretend play staples for any toy box. These toys typically have three characteristics in common. They are open-ended, in that there is more than one way to play with the toy; they promote interaction i.e. they encourage collaboration and conversation, and they can be used for varying levels of pretend play – from simple to elaborate. These toys will take your kids from their early toddler years all the way through to kindergarten.

The following are specific examples of a few of our personal favourites:
 photo 8_zpsywdvoe3l.jpg 1. Stuffed Toy and Dolls
Teddy bears aren’t just for cuddling and sleeping; sometimes, children’s first pretending is carried out with their favourite stuffed toy or doll. New pretenders might enjoy feeding their teddy bear or doll with a toy spoon or putting a blanket over it so it can go to sleep. Experienced pretenders can have tea parties with several stuffed animals or dolls, or even create a hospital to house their animals who have, mysteriously, all fallen ill at the same time.


 photo 9_zpswvf5m7vo.jpg  2. Puppets
Puppets can be used in the same way as stuffed animals or dolls. But they have an additional feature that really stimulates pretending – their moving mouths and arms help them come to life. This makes them look more realistic and encourages new pretenders to feed them, talk to them, or comb their hair. More experienced pretenders enjoy putting on puppet shows using multiple puppets, or even puppets they’ve made themselves out of old socks. A cardboard box makes a great puppet theatre. Puppet shows encourage great collaboration and peer play in older children.


 photo 10_zpsmvvojdo0.jpg  3. Building Blocks
There is no limit to what you and your child can create together with the use of building blocks. Children new to pretending might build something simple and familiar like a house or a garage for their favourite car. More experienced pretenders might pretend individual blocks are beds for the hospital or pieces of garbage for the garbage truck. Or they might enjoy creating elaborate scenes out of blocks, such as zoos, farms, castles, or even a full city!


 photo 11_zpswbzpvadq.jpg 4. Pretend Cooking Toys
Children interact with food constantly – they eat, watch their caregivers prepare meals, and visit the grocery store. This makes food a great theme for new pretenders as it is so familiar. Often a child’s first pretending involves food, such as feeding a stuffed animal or feeding mommy with a toy cup. More experienced pretenders can play restaurant, have a tea party, pretend to shop for toy food, have a birthday party, or even play shop…the possibilities are endless! (P.S. Adding a toy register for the older ones will help hone their Mathematical skills!)


 photo 12_zpshzgtxzmi.jpg 5. Vehicles
All children enjoy playing with vehicles. Just like food, vehicles are something common in children’s experience, which makes it a good early pretend theme. A shoe box with doors cut out at the ends makes a great pretend garage or indoor parking lot. Popsicle sticks or toothpicks can be used to pave roads and highways. Investing in tracks is an excellent choice if your child shows continual interest in vehicles. It takes alot of brain activity to create different combinations of rail and road infrastructure, especially when many different sets are combined together with the aim of building one mega city.


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6. Play Dough
Most children enjoy the sensory experience of squishing, rolling, and manipulating playdough. This can be a way to hook new pretenders into using their imagination. New pretenders can make something simple and familiar, like a car or an apple. And you don’t even need fancy playdough sets that come with the full range of molding and shaping accessories. Sometimes, the best playdough creations will come from an open and actively imaginative mind.


 photo 13_zpsjxwwiyb7.jpg 7. Costumes and Props for Role Play.
Just like a glittery dress or a new car can make us feel like a million bucks, a fanciful outfit can transport a kid out of the quotidian world of the playroom, preschool, or backyard, and into a whole new world of extraordinary possibilities.

When choosing dress-up clothes, steer away from licensed characters and well-established fairytale legends: push your child to come up with their own storyline from scratch.


 photo 14_zpsjdbjdrfq.jpg 8. Dollhouses
While dollhouses have many pretend play benefits that range from language to social interaction to communication and more, there is one single attribute about it that few other pretend play toys can replicate: the renacting of daily household scenarios under one roof. When engaging your child with dollhouses, ask them to sequence the day’s events by acting out typical routines from morning to evening; or challenge them to reorganize their living space in order to accommodate more people (grandparents/new baby/or even a new pet!). Dollhouses are a fantastic platform to create various ‘What If?’ situations that require lateral thinking and problem-solving skills. For instance, everyone in the family is now home and all want to watch different programmes on the television. Can they pick out another activity which will allow the family to bond together as a unit instead?

Good dollhouse sets will come with ample expansion sets that include tiny detailed board games or even outdoor play items such as frisbees or even an outdoor barbecue grill, all of which are perfect answers to that question.

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Steer Away From:

1. Toys with Unnecessary Sound and Light
Sometimes too many buttons or electronic parts can mean that the child’s focus shifts to button-pressing instead of using his or her imagination. Even the whooshing sound of a kitchen blender is unnecessary; isn’t it better if your child tries to replicate the sounds on his/her own instead of letting the toy do it? Not to mention that it then sets a boundary for your child to make believe it as something else (like, say, a futuristic jug, or an elixir flask).

2. Close-ended Toys
Some toys may come across as a good pretend play option at first glance, even though they are designed to only have one specific end product. Examples of this include building and assembly kits formulated for much older children, certain Lego sets that are designed to construct only one particular formation, and guided craft activities that requires the close following of instructions for a specific desired outcome.

These types of toys are good for encouraging other skills such as fine motor ability, mechanical skills, and even concentration and attention span; but might not necessarily do the job as a good pretend play toy.



One Comment Add yours

  1. sajjadazimat says:

    Thanks 🙂 The blog was very informative 🙂

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