“Let’s pretend:” Words more magical than Abracadabra.
Pretend play is the greatest tool a child has. When children engage in imaginary play there are no limits. As soon as a child utters the words “pretend that…” it doesn’t matter if the next words are “I’m a shark baby”—every child participating in the play provides a platform for that child to be a “shark baby.” Be it a shark baby, a doctor, a superstar, a mommy or a daddy, a child uses that persona to explore a curiosity, an idea or an emotion.
Children use role-playing to make sense of what they observe. It’s a way to explore an experience that can be scary or confusing. One of the most concrete examples of this is when kids pretend to go to the doctor. When I taught preschool, I was always able to see who was about to have their annual checkup. Right before their appointment, little ones would start engaging in serious doctor play, which ALWAYS involved a shot. The child was always the doctor and I was always the patient.
Warning: I’m totally going to geek out about this and break it down.
When kids become the doctor, they create a setting where they are in control. As they act out each part of the examination—the stethoscope, checking reflexes, looking in ears and nose—they are reenacting what they are familiar with. They are psyching themselves up for the moment when they have to administer the shot.
I’ve had approximately 700 pretend shots in my life and every one of them is administered the same way: The child tells me that it is going to hurt a little, there is a slight poke of a pretend needle followed by the encouragement that I am “a brave girl,” and then they ask if I want a lollypop.
By the end of the examination, the child is more emotionally prepared for the upcoming appointment. How freaking magical is that?!
The power of pretend doesn’t stop there. Here is a list of all the incredible things that transpire when kids engage in imaginary play.
When kids engage in pretend play they use one object to represent another. This type of default symbolic thought is used in language development—words are symbols. They stand for our thoughts and ideas. Pretend play and language both involve the same underlying ability to represent things symbolically (Weitzman and Greenberg, 2002).
Little ones start engaging in make-believe as soon as they say their first words, around 12-18 months. Children will start to imitate language and behaviors of others. I’ve seen a 15-month-old child hold full phone conversations using a block. As she babbled away saying “Siri,” “mommy,” “play,” and “milk,” she was practicing the language she hears every day. As cute as this is, it gets better. When you engage with a child during pretend you are able to expand their vocabulary. In this case, by picking up a block and holding a conversation with the girl, she was introduced to all kinds of new words as well as practice her back-and-forth communication!
Practice problem solving
Pretend play often involves cooperative play, when a child plays with others. One thing you can bet on is when multiple children come together in make-believe, there’s going to be some heavy negations. “I’m the mom. You have to be the big sister.” “You were the knight last time! Not fair.” I’ve seen children fighting over who got to be the baby pig. If you can pretend it, you can fight over it. While I’ve seen children brought to tears at the idea of not being the “bus driver,” I’ve also seen kids negotiate with their friends to create an elaborate turn-taking process. The turn taking and share responsibility skills developed during pretend resonate deep with little ones and have lasting power.
Social Emotional Learning
Pretend play fosters empathy. It’s true! Have you ever heard the phrase “walk a mile in their shoes”? When kids engage in make-believe that is exactly what they are doing. They are trying out new personas, experimenting with social roles. When they play pretend with other children they are taking into consideration the feelings of others.
Despite all of the wonders pretend offers, it tends to fall out of favor about the age of eight. Some parents even encourage their children to leave the world of pretend, regarding it a phase that should pass. Gasp, I know.
That’s why this October, we’re celebrating all things pretend play—just in time for Halloween.