Plenty of Pretend Play
Educational and developmental scholars all emphatically agree. Children learn best through play. They play to learn and learning is maximized when play:
• involves transforming objects and actions symbolically
• includes dialogue, and
• inventing and assuming a variety of roles.
Make believe play scenarios enable children to explore and process new knowledge. Pretend, dramatic, sociodramatic, role-playing, or whatever you want to call it, are all referring to play that is fun and instructive! Yet, there has been a rapid decline in the amount of pretend play children engage in. Pretend playtime is nearly extinct as academic demands assume increasing amounts of time in kindergarten classrooms. By extension, I expect pretend play is less common in other preschool or care settings and sadly, even at home. So make this your New Year’s resolution: bring back pretend play!
Young children benefit from pretend play in a multitude of ways, so many they all are hard to recount here. Suffice it to say that studies have found that purposeful and productive pretend play is positively related to the emergence of problem-solving skills, self-regulation (think staying on task and delaying gratification), socio-emotional development (think being empathetic and expressing and experiencing emotions like anger in appropriate and safe contexts), symbolic thinking, and academic skill development. And by academic skill development, I am talking about math and science as well as reading and social studies. Success in math and science assumes abilities to manipulate ideas and symbols, skills that are inherent in pretend play. Riding a pretend horse with a stick between your legs, picking up a block and punching in a phone number as though it were a cell phone, or putting one’s arms out and flying, avoiding planets and asteroids along the way, all involve symbolic transformations and experiences that build cognitive skills.
Pretend play is not swiping and game playing on electronic devices or watching Disney princesses, despite how intriguing and fantastical those games and movies can be. No, pretend play is active physically and cognitively. In the latter case think of inventing actions, roles, and a story line including conversations or a narrative of those actions. When children are engaged in make believe they are also actively making attributions about emotions and motives, such as the stuffed animal that is a stand in for a dog is hurt and feeling pain, the baby doll is hungry, or the firefighter is brave. More complex and advanced forms of pretend play (older children’s play) involve things that are invisible but still central to the narrative. Such as, Mom is at work but she left a note on how to prepare supper, or we are preparing for an alien attack.
So, how can you bring back pretend play?
1. Always watch and listen to what your child shows interest in. An interest could be exotic like hunting crocodiles, or an everyday activity like preparing a snack. Younger children or those who are less inclined to pretend may do better with a familiar activity.
If your child does not initiate play you may have to search for clues. A conversation about a favorite book, television show, or movie can provide information or you may notice your child staring at a police officer, nurse or the plumber. “I saw you were watching the plumber. What did he do to take that pipe out from under the sink?”
Once you have identified a potential target for play you can model how to pretend. Begin enacting the role your self, or use a puppet or stuffed animal. Make noises and faces, and carry on the appropriate dialogue taking both sides of a conversation if necessary, changing your voice to match each character.
Demonstrate how to use things symbolically. The most common example is holding one’s hand out as a tea saucer while the other hand “lifts” the imaginary cup to your lips. As that plumber, turn a “wrench” by using a ruler as a stand in, or give a stuffed animal the imaginary shot the nurse would give.
Just remember that you are demonstrating how to play and may be a partner in your child’s play, but your child should retain control of the nature and direction of the play activity. Some of us can get carried away. Try not to overwhelm your child and start slowly if you have a reluctant partner.
2. Set up space for imaginary play. The more room the better so actions can be big and dramatic, but if you have limited space make sure it is not too cluttered with distracting stuff. You don’t need to buy anything for imaginary play. Everything you need is already probably available, or toilet paper rolls, boxes, stuffed animals, and dress-up items (not costumes but random items of clothing). The more detail on a toy, the less imagination it takes to use it. So suggest that a box can be a cash register, a treasure chest, or a tackle box. The real toy versions can be a hindrance in that they are designed for use in only one very specific way.
Don’t forget to encourage pretend play outdoors. Here your child has more room and access novel items such as sticks, leaves, and stones that can be incorporated into play symbolically.
3. Leave play objects or costumes out so your child can pick up on a play scenario at a later time. Many of us are insistent that children clean up after themselves, but this may limit their ability to return to a make-believe setting, continuing and extending it. Building on existing interests and elaborating on them, or continuing the make-believe idea or talking about it, is where the most benefit in learning can be achieved.
Come on, jump in, you know you want to and that you’ll have fun and learn too. Let’s capture and grow imaginations and promote plenty of positive development along the way. Let’s playfully pretend.