I am often amazed at the power of children’s imaginations. Leave a cardboard box unattended, and it’s soon being transformed into a rocket ship, puppet theater or baby doll crib. Give kids a few dress-up clothes, and they’re soon pretending to be Mom and Dad—or dashing off on their next superhero adventure. While such activities are traditionally thought of as play, acting out pretend situations is actually important work that children’s brains are wired to do—preparing for real-life roles and situations they’ll face in the future.
By encouraging pretend play at home, parents can help their children build essential skills that are key to their development, including:
Creativity – When we think of creativity, we often think of artistic pursuits, like painting a picture. But creativity is a tool that all of us use in our daily lives. As adults, we often use creative problem solving to tackle everyday challenges at work and at home. These can include complex tasks that involve months of planning and coordination, as well as simple tasks like inventing a great family dinner using only a few items left in the fridge. Children prepare for real-life problem solving by engaging in pretend play, which flexes their creative muscles in a big way.
Social-Emotional Skills – By acting out pretend situations with peers and with adults, children have many opportunities to develop valuable social skills like sharing and taking turns. They’ll also explore different ways to express their feelings and ideas—whether they’re speaking for an action figure or caring for a baby doll. And, when children pretend to be another person or animal, they practice seeing the world from a new perspective, which helps them develop empathy for others.
Language and Literacy – Pretend play fosters oral language development by encouraging children to talk, test out and even use new words as they take on different roles and characters. For example, during vehicle play, children might explore words such as “hitch,” “haul,” and “soar.” Children will also learn new words when playing with their peers, and they’ll begin to recognize words they see on pretend play props, such as menus and road signs. This is important because there is a direct correlation between the number of words young children know and their future reading success.
Cognitive and Math Skills – From sorting play money to building a castle by stacking up blocks, pretend play encourages children to use real-life props that promote early mathematical learning. As children play and explore, they begin comparing and sorting objects, counting, measuring and recognizing shapes—to name just a few of the skills that children are learning!
Children will naturally find their own ways to engage in pretend play, but here are a few simple ways that parents can guide kids along and help them make the most of these very special learning opportunities.
- Brainstorm pretend play ideas with your child. Grab a pencil and paper and work with your child to create a list of fun pretend play ideas. If your child needs help coming up with ideas, focus on a topic he or she is interested in. For example, if you just read a book about dinosaurs together, suggest acting out the life of a T. rex! Or, if your child likes other animals, your list might include making a jungle habitat, acting out an animal rescue or playing vet. Whenever your child is looking for something to do, pull out the list and encourage your child to pick an idea.
- Provide props. A few simple props can go a long way! Here are just a few ideas to get you started:
- Create a grocery store by supplying shopping bags, play money and items to shop for, such as real or pretend food.
- Open a vet’s office for your child’s stuffed animals by supplying bandages, a doctor’s coat and plenty of paper to make X-rays, charts and office forms.
- Go on a pretend train ride by setting up chairs, pulling out a suitcase or two, and cutting tickets out of construction paper.
- Turn a large box into a fire truck or police vehicle, leaving one end of the box open for children to enter and cutting a large hole out of the top for kids’ heads!
- Get out children’s old Halloween costumes and let their imaginations run wild!
- Schedule play dates. Help your child build friendships and give them new opportunities for pretend play at the same time. Start the play date with a structured activity (such as a game or art project), allowing children time to break the ice and get comfortable with each other. Then pull out your list of pretend play adventures—or let the kids think of new ideas together!
- Join in the fun. Set aside a small block of time to join your child in pretend play. Your child will love having you as a customer in their store or as a character in an exciting adventure. Inspire your child’s imagination and encourage your child to lead the activity by asking questions like, Who should I be? or Where are we going?
- Make time for playtime. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, make sure that open-ended pretend play is part of your child’s daily routine. For every hour that children spend watching a movie or playing games on the computer, encourage an hour or more of pretend play with the screen off. This will give children the freedom to invent their own mental images—and develop essential skills that will last a lifetime.