What Happens When Kids Pretend

Pretend Play in Unboxed: Adventures in CardboardTsivia Cohen, AVP of Family Learning at Chicago Children’s Museum, explains the importance of pretend play.

Remember when your bed was a boat? When a box was a cave? At Chicago Children’s Museum, we are often amazed by the consuming quality of children’s imaginary play, especially in the right environment. Kids have such fertile imaginations that they can spend hours organizing, inventing and acting out pretend situations. But pretend play is not just compelling fun, it’s important to kids’ learning and development. Parents may wonder what kids are getting from running around as superheroes, talking to make-believe friends, or playing house.

What do kids learn when they imagine and what can you, as a caregiver or educator, do to enhance this learning?

We hope this article will begin to answer these and other questions that you might have about kids’ imaginative play.

When children pretend by themselves:

From the time children are very young, make-believe friends-including dolls, invisible playmates and even magically animated objects-can help children realize that the thoughts and feelings happening inside of them might be shared by others. Frufru is scared of thunder, a child might say, projecting her own feelings and then reassuring her imaginary friend. This burgeoning empathy provides an avenue for kids to practice social skills that will prove useful with real people. Make-believe friends also help children feel more secure when they are nervous about a new situation. It’s not so daunting to try something new with a readily adaptable companion along. Not all children have imaginary friends, but those who do often summon them when anxious, transferring the security of home to the doctor’s office or a first day at school.

Pretend is also a way that children process new experiences and create memories that make sense to them. At the end of the day, children will sometimes tell themselves the story of what they saw and did. Make-believe friends can serve as sympathetic ears. If children need to reframe an experience to feel better about what happened, pretend friends have been known to take the heat for feelings and behaviors a child prefers to disown.

When children pretend with others:

Children can pretend by themselves, but, as they grow, they often share the conjuring up of the imaginary world with other people. Playful adults can join in the fun, but often the collaborators are other children.

It’s not easy for two or more children, each with very different points of view, to agree on the rules and terms of a completely made-up world, and yet children can be extremely focused and persistent at this kind of play. As Segal and Adcock report in their wonderful book, Just Pretending, small groups of children can spend hours pretending together even when theyíre don’t have consensus about who has what role or what direction their story will take. To adult ears, the shared adventure may sound repetitive or confused, but children will continue to replay the episode, making small adjustments each time (Segal and Adcock). Not only are children learning to collaborate and deal with conflict, they are piecing together information about how the world works and developing an understanding of story structure that will help them when they start to read. In taking on roles, children are again learning empathy, this time from the inside out.

Whether a child plays alone or with others, make-believe is a highly valuable tool for coping with emotionally-charged situations and for building a vocabulary to express thoughts and feelings. Children replay happy events, as well as sad or scary ones. By telling themselves stories, and sometimes acting out these stories, children are organizing and processing their experiences. Adopting a role of someone with real or magical powers-a doctor, witch or superhero-can give children a sense of control and enhance their self-concept.

Can pretend be a problem?

Parents sometimes worry that children will become confused by what is imaginary and what is real. It seems that kids, even preschoolers, are aware when they are pretending, often prefacing their play with words such as pretend or play. Even so, it is never a bad idea to make sure children recognize that certain actions, particularly flying, are physically impossible. Pretend flying is fun, but can people really fly? The other concern most often mentioned by parents has to do with pretend play about violence, especially when children incorporate weapons. There appears to be no clear consensus among experts, and certainly not among parents, about whether this kind of play is good for kids, bad for kids or simply unavoidable. Many parents, who forbid this kind of play and would never purchase a toy gun, discover that children will find ways to craft guns out of objects as unlikely as old newspapers or watermelon rinds. Some parents use their children’s interest in violent pretend play as an opportunity to discuss right and wrong or to teach kids about the dangers of real weapons.

How can I help my child pretend?

At the museum, we’ve learned some valuable lessons by observing children as they pretend. Many children, we find, prefer cozy, semi-private spaces for pretend activities. Perhaps you remember building a fort or a clubhouse out of a cardboard box when you were a child. Throwing a blanket or sheet over a table is a simple way to create a cave. At CCM, we often use tulle or netting since these fabrics allows us to see in and for children to see out while ensconcing them in their own private world.

Costumes and props can help children pretend, but they don’t need to be elaborate. A crown is all it takes to make a king. A pair of ears with or without a tail can turn a child into a cat, mouse, bear or monkey. Capes-bath towel, sheet or pillow case-can simply be tucked into the collar of a t-shirt and, voila, you have a superhero. On the other hand, children don’t seem to get much from masks. They can’t see the mask once it’s on their face, and it impairs their ability to see and move around safely-something to consider when designing a Halloween costume. As for wigs, you’d be amazed at the power of a t-shirt pulled up to the hairline and allowed to drape down the child’s back. Simple, open-ended props work best. The phone doesn’t really need to work or even be a phone; it just needs to be the right size and shape to extend from ear to mouth.

As private as make-believe sometimes is, we’ve observed that children enjoy performing in make-believe roles for trusted adults. They might like to act silly or show-off for an attentive audience of friends and family members, but are less interested, it seems, in pretending in front of a crowd. Some parents are particularly effective in moving the story along by setting the scene. Once upon a time, there lived a cat and a princess, one parent told her costumed charges, who lived in a magic forest. Other parents prompt children: Show me how you fly in your cape or What if the kitten gets lost? The bottom line when helping children pretend is to follow their lead. At the museum or at home, children will often tell us what they are imagining and signal us as to what role they would like us to play. Whether you are the audience for or a wombat in your child’s make-believe world, have fun together and relish the magical power of children’s imaginations.

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