Why You Should Encourage Pretend Play
“Mama, can I watch your phone?”
I am totally guilty of giving in to this request more often than what I’d like to admit. My kids like to watch the weirdest stuff on YouTube, love some Netflix, and are obsessed with random games that have absolutely nothing to do with learning their ABC’s or numbers.
Having a span of birth years ranging from 2009 to 2015, I can see a difference in the frequency of this request between my three- and four-year-old, as compared to when my nine-year-old was their age.
This world has a complete and total technology epidemic on their hands.
And while this epidemic has both a negative and positive impact on our young ones, that’s not the purpose of this article. You can go here to read more about the impact that technology over-exposure can have on little minds.
So, instead of focusing on the effects of technology, let’s put the cellphone down—unless you are reading this on your phone, then please don’t put it down!—and pick up the toys. Cause pretend play... now that’s where the magic lies.
In all seriousness, I am a total believer in moderation of all things. But if I can encourage you to encourage your child in one thing, it is pretend play. Of all the pastimes we can expose our child to, pretend play arguably best covers exposure to all developmental domains. In other words, every time your child engages in pretend play, they progress just a little bit more in all areas of their development. Let’s break it down.
What: Gross and fine motor skills are perhaps one of the most easily seen ways in which children develop. Gross motor refers to the larger movements we make with our arms, legs, or entire body. Fine motor refers to those made with the fingers, wrists, hands, feet, and toes.
How: Pretend play can present opportunities for children to engage in movements that encourage the development of large movements as they run, jump, crawl, and act out roles. It also encourages the development of small movements as they play and manipulate toys.
Ideas for play: Outdoor adventure play is great for gross motor skills, especially if you have play equipment available. Summer can bring water table play and winter snow can be a great opportunity to use action figures in the snow. Too cold to stay out for long? Bring the snow to your little one in large bowls or even the bathtub. Once children are old enough to play with toys that have smaller parts, dolls or action figures that have removal clothing and/or parts can be great for fine tuning those smaller movements.
What: Cognitive development refers to the receiving, processing, and organizing of information that has been perceived through our senses and then using that information appropriately in our interactions with the environment. This includes instincts that we are born with, such as the startle reflex.
How: Pretend play gives children opportunities to role play cause and effect, enhance cognitive flexibility, and increase creativity. Longitudinal studies have shown that early imaginative play is associated with increased creativity later in life.
Ideas for play: Playing school is an amazing way to encourage pretend play while also inadvertently exposing children to early learning concepts. Use of blocks or other construction materials can encourage building creativity. Helping children to set up a “store” in their bedroom can assist in problem solving and organizational skills, as well as the understanding of the exchange of goods for money.
What: Social/emotional development encompasses feelings, emotions, behaviors, self-esteem, independence, temperament, relationships with others, and attachment to others.
How: Pretend play provides opportunities for children to engage in turn-taking, regulating emotions, recognizing the social cues of others, and interacting with other children in a way that is mutually beneficial. There is really no alternative to social and emotional development like pretend play.
Ideas for play: Puppets and dramatic play are great at encouraging children to work together. Abstract fantasy world play is also good for promoting empathy and respect towards others. Any opportunity in which children will need to communication ideas, but also listen to and compromise on the ideas of others helps develop the social and emotional development of our children.
What: Communication development refers to the perceiving, understanding and producing of communication. Language is ultimately the goal in which we want to see our children communicate with those around us. However, it’s important to note that children communicate with us long before language has developed. And for some children, alternative forms of communicating may be a primary means for their lifetime.
How: Pretend play can help children develop both language and other means of communicating in a realm of ways. As children pretend, they begin to understand symbols and infer meaning, which are the first steps to communication and language. Pretend play also allows children opportunities to communicate with playmates or to practice speech through self-talk.
Ideas for play: Using action figures and dolls to for storyline play is one of my favorites for language development. It’s helpful to model this when your child is young. Get them started on storylines with their action figures or dolls and then step back and let your child take over. It’s also important to encourage children to play with each other, rather than relying only on adults to play with them. When young, it’s typical for children to engage in parallel play; as children grow older they should show more interest in play that requires back and forth interaction with peers.
Self Help/Adaptive Development
What: Self help development is all about gaining the skills needed to become more independent and learning the coping skills needed to adapt smoothly to changes in the environment. Feeding, dressing, bathrooming, and drinking independently are all goals in this area.
How: As in all the other areas, pretend play is the ultimate practice for growing more independent. Children who can play independently or utilize creative play with other children are less reliant on adults to initiate play. Ultimately, we want our children to be able to utilize toys, materials, and objects around them to use their imaginations and create games, storylines, and practice of real-life scenarios. There is no coincidence that children often want to engage in pretend play that follows similar storylines of real life, like playing school, playing mom or dad, or playing doctor.
Ideas for play: Dress-up is a great way to practice self-dressing skills, particularly the manipulation of little buttons and zippers—also working on those fine motor skills! Playing kitchen and food prep are also great for developing self-help skills, as children practice the food preparation skills that they often observe their parents perform in the kitchen.