There are many reasons to be jealous of our little kids, but being able to retreat into their imagination has to be towards the top of that list. As we grow up, being in our own little fantasy world isn’t really acceptable, is it? But for toddlers and children, it’s encouraged. That’s because it isn’t just a good way for them to keep themselves entertained — pretend play (also known as “dramatic play”) comes with some serious benefits for kids’ cognitive, social, and emotional development.
Now that you know how important this type of play is, you’re probably dying for details about how to foster it in your child. Well, here’s what you need to know about pretend play, including some ideas for getting your kiddo started.
What is pretend play?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the definition of pretend play is “when children experiment with different social roles in a nonliteral fashion.” But that’s just a fancy way of saying that pretend play is really role play — or when kids act out different scenarios using their imagination.
What are the stages of pretend play?
Based on research by Jean Piaget, these are the stages of pretend play:
Single pretend transformation toward self (with toys that resemble real objects): The child hugs a doll or toy animal; the child pretends to eat toy food.
The object is a pretend agent (with toys that resemble real objects, the object is treated as if it acts): The child has a doll act as if it is eating toy food.
Single pretend transformation (with toys that have no resemblance to real objects): The child creates a bed out of building blocks; the child forms a pancake from molding clay.
Pretend role (with toys associated with a role that resemble real objects): The child pretends to be a cook with toy food; the child pretends to be a policeman with a toy badge and a toy car.
Multiple pretend role transformations (with toys that resemble real-world objects): The child takes roles, such as doctor, patient, and nurse while playing with dolls or toy animals.
Pretend role (without the support of toys that resemble real objects): With blocks or molding clay, the child constructs the objects needed for the pretend setting, such as a farm with blocks and farm animals from the molding clay.
Multiple pretend roles (with toys that resemble real-world objects): A group of children use doctor’s office toys and play roles as doctor, patient, and nurse.
Multiple pretend roles (without toys that resemble real objects): Children use blocks or molding clay to create the pretend setting and designate roles to enact.
What are the benefits of pretend play?
Pretend play has a major role in a child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. Some of the specific benefits include:
Teaching kids how to socially bond
Teaching kids how to respect others
Teaching kids how to communicate
Teaching kids how to balance personal emotions with the emotions of others
Increasing the bond between child and caregiver
Teaching kids about stress management
Teaching kids about resilience
Improving academic skills
Decreasing disruptive behaviors
Increasing understanding of literature
Increasing emotional competence
Practicing and acquiring negotiation and sharing skills
Expressing and exploring feelings
Exercising logical reasoning skills
Improving concentration and focus
How about some ideas and examples?
The great thing about pretend play is that it relies heavily on imagination. So, no need to buy any fancy (or expensive) equipment or toys! In fact, having kids play pretending that objects are actually something else — like, pretending that a banana is a telephone — enhances the whole experience. Here are some examples of pretend play, as well as some ideas to help get you started:
Create a prop box full of different objects from around your house to spark your child’s imagination. You may want to include things like old clothes, shoes, backpacks, and hats; old telephones, phone books, and magazines; cooking utensils, dishes, plastic food containers, table napkins, and silk flowers; stuffed animals and dolls of all sizes; t-shirts and a tie-dye kit for supervised fun creating wearable works of art; and fabric pieces, blankets, or old sheets for making costumes or a fort.
Play along with your child, offering suggestions if they run out of ideas.
Give your child a large cardboard box (ideally, from a major appliance) and let them design their own bus, spaceship, house, food truck, etc.
Encourage kids to act out their favorite books, poems, or stories.
This is also a good time to remind you that not every adult is good at — or enjoys — playing. If you fall into that category, don’t worry! It definitely doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent, and your kiddo won’t hold it against you. They’ll be happy with any effort you make at all.