Benefits of Pretend Play and Why It’s Important for Child Development

When you picture a child in your mind, maybe your own child or just a child in general, he or she is most probably in the middle of playing. He could be playing catch with a ball, pretending to be a chef and cooking up a feast, or you imagine two children running after each other playing tag. Children and play go hand-in-hand, and play is an essential part of child development. As the psychologist Jean Piaget notes, “Play is the work of childhood.”

Professor and author Dr. Peter Gray has described play to have five characteristics:

  1. Play is self-chosen and self-directed
  2. Play is activity which means are more valued than ends
  3. Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players
  4. Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some ways from “real” or “serious” life.
  5.  Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind

Based on this definition, we can see that authentic play depends more on the attitude or mental approach a child takes towards an activity, more than what the actual activity is. For example, one child might consider throwing a ball against a wall as playing, while another might think he’s not playing (for example, a parent might be forcing a child to play with the ball.) There are also different kinds of play that children engage in that fulfill the characteristics of play – guided play, active play, pretend play, and more. The common denominator is how the child feels about what he’s doing – if he feels like he’s playing or not.

What is the importance of pretend play in child development?

One type of play that is often enjoyed by children is pretend play. This type of play is a healthy part of every child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. From the outside, it may seem that children are “just playing” when a grownup sees a child engaging in pretend play. We’re all familiar with kids playing with toy dinosaurs or pretending to be a superhero. However, parents should know that there are important benefits toddlers and preschoolers gain from pretend play.

There are two basic types of pretend play: fantasy play and sociodramatic play.

Fantasy play is when the child goes in and out of character and is continuously explaining what he or she is pretending to be or do – “I’m being a vet and pretending to examine this sick cat.” This starts at around age 2 and peaks during preschool.

In sociodramatic play, the child does not break character once the guidelines of the pretend storylines are set. This usually happens in the form of a social narrative and copies stories that the child is exposed to and regularly watches or sees – “I’m Ironman! I’m going to rescue that car.”

Both kinds of pretend play have benefits for child development. Pretend play has wide-reaching effects on cognitive, socio-emotional, and language developments in a child.

Cognitive Development

When kids are engaged in pretend play, children learn new information about the world around them. When they create characters and scenarios, they exercise logical reasoning and maintaining different trains of thoughts, which are very important in cognitive development. It also allows them to exercise creativity and learn how to their imagination. For example, when a child is pretending to be a teacher in front of her class, she is putting herself in the shoes of a teacher and needs to think about how a teacher will act. If her student (in reality, a stuffed animal) wants to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom, “teacher” needs to issue a hall pass, give it to the student, and so on. The child needs to think about taking the perspective and the role of the teacher and act accordingly.

Socio-Emotional Development

A child’s socio-emotional skills are also developed by pretend play. When role-playing with other children, they learn how to self-regulate their emotions – one of the most important skills a child needs to learn to grow up to be a happy and healthy adult. This leads to learning how to take turns, empathizing with others, delaying gratification, even a reduction in aggression. Relationships with their peers are honed and developed. Parents are always concerned with their children’s socialization skills and one way to develop this is to encourage pretend playing with other kids. Through pretend play, children also learn how to read facial expressions and body language of others, more important skills for the future.

Language Development

Positive effects on language development have also been observed due to pretend play. When children are playing, they naturally increase their vocabulary – for example, little chefs learn new cooking terms like cooking, stirring, baking. Little drivers learn parts of the car – headlights, engine, mirror. Little firefighters learn the names of places and objects in a fire station – fire engine, fireman’s pole, fire extinguisher, and more. Pretend play has also shown growth in language usage including subjunctives, future tenses, and adjectives.  Other studies have shown that when books and other literacy-related materials are added to pretend play (for example, pretending to be a mommy reading a book to her baby) children also used more varied language and demonstrated an increase in reading and writing activities.

Other Types of Pretend Play

Pretend play is a general term for different types of play that involve using the imagination and role-playing. If you’ve read or heard about pretend play, you’ll recognize some of these other terms that are related to it.

Symbolic Play

Symbolic play and pretend play are terms often interchanged with each other. They both mean pretend play, but symbolic play is more specifically “using objects, actions or ideas to represent other objects, actions, or ideas.” For example, when a child sits inside a playpen and uses it as a pirate ship, or when a child engages in pretend play with stuffed animals. 

Dramatic Play

Dramatic play is also another term for symbolic play. During this stage, children are imitating familiar scenarios via role play. Playing “house” is one example of dramatic play. This is a more advanced type of play as the children playing are often assigned roles that they have to stick to – “I am Mommy”, “ You are the sister” or “Jordan is the dog”.

Imaginative Play

Imaginative play is also another term used for pretend play. This involves role-playing, acting out different situations, and doing various activities related to these situations.

In summary, there are no strict lines between pretend play, symbolic play, dramatic play, and imaginative play. These are all terms that refer to a child using his imagination and creativity when experimenting with different social roles in nonliteral fashion. They can be used interchangeably and all mean the same thing – pretend play.

Functional Play

Before being able to pretend play, children first engage in functional play – considered a child’s first play. Unlike pretend play, a child doesn’t pretend or imagine in this stage of play. This type of play begins at infancy and continues until toddlerhood, or about 2 years old. It is considered to be the simplest type of play wherein the child concentrates on the natural physical characteristics of an object and plays with it for what it is. For example, a 15-month-old playing with blocks – he’s examining its texture, throwing it from a highchair, or rolling it on the floor.  There is no pretending that a block is a mobile phone or a piece of cake. A block is just enjoyed as a block. After this stage and a child moves into doing pretend play, he might start using the block as a symbol for other objects.

Pretend Play Enjoyment Developmental Checklist (PPE-DC)

Some parents might find it challenging to objectively gauge if their child is reaping the benefits of pretend play. In this case, the The Pretend Play Enjoyment Developmental Checklist, or the PPE-DC, is a useful tool that assesses a child’s play ability and checks on three specific aspects: 1) pretend play skills, 2) enjoyment of play, and 3) a child’s sense of self. This assessment tool can be used by both parents and teachers to check on a child’s pretend play ability.

The PPE-DC helps provide insight into different areas of a child’s development that are usually not assessed, like how a child role plays or plays with dolls, but has impact on a child’s language skills, cognitive development, and socio-emotional skills. 

One remarkable finding that was established using this assessment tool is that pretend play, such as role-playing with stuffed animals, can lessen the impact of screen time on children’s visual-motor integration skills (the ability to use the eyes and hands in a coordinated manner) and bilateral coordination (the ability to use both sides of the body at the same time in an organized and controlled manner).  

When talking about toddlers and preschoolers nowadays, it is inevitable that screen time becomes part of the conversation. The reality is that it’s now hard to find a family without at least one screen at home – either a smartphone or a laptop or a tablet or a TV (or all of the above). As research shows, pretend play is also an important tool in counteracting negative effects of screen time on children.

When does Pretend Play Start and Stop?

Children normally start to pretend play at around 2 and a half years until about 7 years old. Before turning 2, kids play with toys and objects for what they are (functional play), without using their imagination to make the toy take the place of something else. For example, if a 1-year old child is given a playhouse, he or she will probably go in and out of the house repeatedly, open and close the windows, and bang the door. If you give a 4-year old the same playhouse, this child will most probably pretend she is a mommy or a baby, and act in accordance with the role she has chosen. If there are other kids to play with, roles will be assigned, and each child will take on that role. “I’m the mommy, you’re my baby, and Audrey will be our neighbor.” Children enjoy pretend play for many years, until they are about 7 years old. For parents, these are wonderful years where you will be constantly amazed and entertained by the various stories and scenarios your child can come up with while playing.

How to Encourage Pretend Play?

So, how can parents encourage pretend play? Toddlers and preschoolers innately love to pretend play but there are also different ways to encourage them to engage more in this type of beneficial play. Here are few tips below:

  1. Follow the child – try not to dictate what kind of scenario you want your child to act out or play in. Let your child take the lead and decide how to play and figure out the story and rules of this pretend play.
  2. Give your child the opportunities to both play alone and with other children – both types of play are beneficial and important for kids. When they play alone, they exercise their creativity and learn independence. When playing with other kids, they hone their social and emotional skills.
  3. Encourage them when they use toys in new and innovative ways – learn to embrace your child’s creativity and stop yourself when you want to insist that they play a certain way. Of course, there are definitely games and instances when rules need to be followed but during pretend play, allow them to combine toys with Legos or use blocks as food.
  4. Talk to your child – having everyday conversations with your child about nature and the different social situations around you can help foster pretend play. Research has also demonstrated that children whose parents read to them at bedtime have also been shown to pretend play more compared to other kids.

These are great ways to encourage pretend play in your toddler and preschooler. Pretend play creates a win-win situation for both parents and children. Aside from all the benefits a child gains from engaging in it, parents can also learn more about their child by watching the way they role play. Pretend play also serves as a great way for parents to play with their children.

Pretend play is truly a vital part of a child’s development. With so many “overscheduled” children now (for example, piano at 3 pm, Math enrichment class at 4 pm, homework after, football on Saturdays), children have less and less time to simply play and be kids. It’s important that parents recognize the benefits that free play, especially pretend play, gives their children. After all, parents just want the best for their child – not just to have a happy child now, but also to help their child become a well-rounded and happy adult in the future.

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