The benefits of pretend play
by Sonja Walker
As the saying goes, ‘play is a child’s work’.
Research has shown that, with the exception of children who are very disadvantaged or severely disabled, between 3% and 20% of children’s time and energy is typically spent in play.
That’s a big part of your child’s day.
Pretend play is what kids do to learn about their world and understand how to interact with the people and things that are in it.
While it might look simple, there’s actually quite a lot happening when children use their imaginations to engage in their fantasy world.
Problem solving, skill building, language development, overcoming physical and mental challenges, it’s all going on behind the scenes when kids engage in pretend play.
So what can you do to encourage the development of your child’s pretend play skills?
Encourage Imaginative Play
Children begin ‘pretend play’ at around the age of two. It’s at this point that they are learning that one thing can symbolise another. For example, a box can become a cubby house or a couple of pots and pans can become a drum set. Imaginative play also involves taking on new roles, for example a superhero, teacher or even a mummy or daddy.
Pretend play builds your child’s understanding of his or her world. For example, you may witness a lot of nurturing play behaviour using dolls if your child is getting used to having a new sibling and mimics your interactions with a new brother or sister. Another favourite is to play ‘schools’, where children enjoy taking on the part of the teacher with their teddy bears in the roles of their ‘students’.
Imaginative play is important because gives your child a sense of control as he or she interprets everyday life around them. It helps your child to practice behaviours and develop the language needed for different situations.
You can encourage your child’s imagination by providing an easily accessible a box of everyday items and practical toys for your child to use during pretend play.
Tea sets and play kitchens, plastic food and fruit collections, dolls houses and building toys all help to facilitate role-playing. Costumes, masks and kiddie versions of everyday tools like hammers, kitchen utensils and telephones are also educational toys that engage your child’s creative mind.
Encourage Social Play
Creating stories through play is important for the development of both social and language skills.
As toddlers, children play side by side without obvious communication. This is called ‘parallel play’ and is typical of children aged between two and four. During their preschool years, however, children start to interact with each other by joining forces to create complex story lines together.
Through this kind of pretend play, children learn to negotiate, cooperate and share. When children disagree about who gets to be the teacher or who will wear the red hat, they're actually developing important problem solving skills. When they combine their ideas to develop the events of their play, they are creating their own narrative. The research shows that a child who has these skills is typically more able to reproduce them when they reach the more formal learning environment of a structured pre-school or school.
You can encourage your child’s storytelling and social play by helping your child to develop relationships with neighbours, pre-school classmates and other friends.
But when organising co-operative play activities for your children, remember that kids do not simply learn the conventions of play by osmosis when you throw them out into the backyard or park together!
Sometimes, in order to play successfully, kids will need to learn the skills and behaviours required for the game from you first.
This might mean that you model the role of ‘shopkeeper’ selling a variety of imaginary vegies and fruit to your ‘customers’, or ‘doctor’ to your ‘patients’ who bring their dolls and teddies to you for a check up. Once your children have learned the play behaviours that are expected, you can withdraw gently and observe unobtrusively until they are bored and need to move on to another activity. Eventually, your child will develop their own ‘script’ for this kind of pretend play and will be able to initiate this kind of activity with peers without your involvement.
Encourage language development
We often tell children to ‘use their words’ when they are upset, frustrated or tired.
Long before children can express their feelings in words, they express them through pretend play, storytelling, art, and other activities. This means that your child’s play might sometimes give you an indication of experiences that have been hurtful or hard for your child to understand.
In this kind of situation, pretend play not only benefits the child by providing an opportunity to talk through feelings, emotions and reactions, it can also offer insights to you as a parent.
You can help your child to develop the language needed to cope with situations by following your child’s lead during pretend play.
This technique, used by child psychologists, speech pathologists and teachers all over the world is one that parents can easily master. All you need to do is show your child that you accept his or her make believe world and wait for an invitation to join in.
Remember, the stories a child tells in their make believe world gives him or her complete control – and this is important for learning.
So, next time your son or daughter wants to play make believe – bolster his or her self-esteem and join in the fun.
The benefits of pretend play are huge, and by sharing your child’s interests and enjoyment, you are strengthening their trust in you and understanding of the world around them.
© Sonja Walker 2010
What kids of pretend play do you kids enjoy? Share your thoughts with other families in the forum below.
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