The other day, a little boy ran up to his mom with both of his hands out, holding what looked like an imaginary piece of paper. The conversation between the almost-three-year-old and his mother went something like this:
Boy: *holding hands out* “Wook, mama! ‘S a peekture!”
Mother: I can see that! Can you tell me about what you drew?
Boy: *sighing in exasperation at his mother’s obvious lack of art appreciation* ‘S Daniel Tiger! (with an implied, “Of course!”)
Fred Rogers was well-known for his love of make-believe, and the spin-off show “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” follows right in Fred’s navy blue sneakers. Kids everywhere are captivated by this program and its focus on imaginary play.
Little kids generally develop their sense of imagination around two-and-a-half years of age, and their ability to create worlds filled with rules, games, and expectations is one of the great ways their brains prepare them for social situations and hone decision-making skills. Still, you might be wondering, how important is pretend play really? The answer: really important.
It helps them make sense of their world.
When you think about it, little kids are exposed to a lot of new stuff in a relatively short amount of time. Can you imagine going to the zoo, the doctor, the dentist, school, riding in a car and possibly an airplane – seeing and experiencing all of those things for the first time – all within a few months or years?
Pretend play helps kids make sense of their world. It lets them experience different professions (doctor, dentist, hairdresser, teacher) and follow both society’s and their own made-up rules (it’s important to clean up after a spill, you need to be careful with dishes, etc.). In a land of pretend, kids get to practice various social scenarios with little or no pressure to make the “correct” choice based on society’s standards.
It lets them be silly without fear.
If you’ve spent any amount of time around little kids, you know that they love being silly, and pretend play helps them embrace that side of themselves. Not only can they dress up as different people, but they can turn into lions and cows and puppy dogs just by changing their shirt or hat.
It facilitates language acquisition.
During pretend play, kids are constantly communicating with each other and themselves. Even when they don’t have the language skills to express what they’re doing and what they want, they still babble on, having completely incoherent conversations with correct tone and inflection. In general, the more kids pretend, the better their language acquisition and expression because they are continually talking and hearing other kids talk.
It hones creativity and encourages exploration without fear.
Pretend play offers another valuable benefit: it hones creativity and encourages exploration. With lots of pretend play, kids get better at finding creative solutions to their problems, and when they play with other kids, they learn how to be flexible. Each kid might have different ideas about how the rules should be in a game, but they have to learn how to compromise and take turns if they want the play to be successful.
It fine-tunes gross and fine motor skills.
All kids need help developing their fine and gross motor skills, and pretend play gives them that opportunity in a low-stress environment. From turning pretend stove knobs to pouring tea, manipulating a family of peg dolls to doing up the buttons on a baby doll’s sweater, pretend play is constantly challenging kids to make both large and small movements.
It helps them process by taking a step back.
There are a lot of scary experiences during childhood, and pretend play helps kids process through events by taking a step back from their own experiences. It helps them remember what adults tell them because they often parrot the phrases to themselves and their peers. “A shot will only hurt for a minute,” “Mommy will be right back,” “There are no monsters,” and “Dinner will be yummy – try a bite!” are all things you’ll hear during pretend play that address valid childhood concerns.
Using pretend play in this way helps kids learn to empathize with other children, and it can help them process through any trauma they have experienced. Children can remove themselves from their feelings as soon as they put a puppet on their hand, which can help with the healing process.
It encourages them to practice life skills.
Last, but certainly not least, pretend play helps kids practice crucial life skills. Some of these skills include:
- Getting dressed
- Setting tables
- Emotional self-regulation
- Letting people have turns
- Taking care of pets
- Buying groceries
- Proper hygiene
- Cooking food
- Playing parent
- Being a helper
These are just some of the skills that kids need to develop in order to become functioning members of society. During pretend play, children can practice them without fear of making a mess or breaking something that would otherwise interrupt the activity.
How can you encourage pretend play?
There are so many ways that you can encourage pretend play with your children, but it does require you to be purposeful. Kids will engage in imaginary play on their own, but you can also model how to do it. Together, you can practice role-playing a story, or you can go along with whatever they instruct you to do in their story. While you’re out and about, explicitly point out new things and experiences to your child – not only does it improve their language skills, but it gives their imaginary play new fodder.
Finally, be purposeful in what toys you keep in your home. Quality pretend play toys and costumes can help keep your kids talking, laughing, and playing for hours each day. If you need help choosing the best toys, check out our selection. In addition to being really fun and engaging, our toys are specially designed to support different aspects of your child’s development.
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