Young children learn by imagining and doing. Have you ever watched your child pick up a stone and pretend it is a zooming car, or hop a Lego across the table as if it were a person or a bunny? Your child is using an object to represent something else while giving it action and motion. But this pretend play is not as simple as it may seem. The process of pretending builds skills in many essential developmental areas.
Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” “Logic will get you from A to Z.. imagination will get you everywhere.”
It fosters creativity by providing a safe space for children to act out scenarios of their choosing, including situations that they may not be able to experience in real life. For example, a 5-year-old who cannot go to a restaurant without her parents can, through imaginative play with her friend, create a pretend tea party they can both enjoy at home. It also gives children opportunities to learn about other people’s perspectives, like what Daddy might think when they are playing house.
Learn about themselves and the world
Dramatic play experiences are some of the first ways children learn about their likes and dislikes, their interests, and their abilities. They experiment with role playing and work to make sense out of what they’ve observed. Just watch children playing with dolls to see examples of this. Dolls often become versions of the child himself and are a safe way for children to express new ideas and feelings.
To support social and emotional development
When your child engages in pretend (or dramatic) play, he is actively experimenting with the social and emotional roles of life. Through cooperative play, he learns how to take turns, share responsibility, and creatively problem-solve. When your child pretends to be different characters, he has the experience of "walking in someone else's shoes," which helps teach the important moral development skill of empathy. It is normal for young children to see the world from their own egocentric point of view, but through maturation and cooperative play, your child will begin to understand the feelings of others. He also builds self-esteem when he discovers he can be anything just by pretending!
To improve language and communication skills
It is fascinating to listen to our children interacting with friends. They often come out with words or phrases that we had no idea they knew! They can do very amusing impersonations of their parents, carers and teachers too! Pretend play allows children to experiment with and learn about the power of language, how it affects us and those around us. It also helps them to understand that words give us the means to re-enact situations, to put our point across and to make ourselves heard and understood. Pretend play offers the perfect opportunity to expose children to new vocabulary, and the more different scenarios they are introduced to, the more scope there is for widening their vocabulary!
They could spend a whole afternoon at the “airport” preparing them for a new experience, or a whole morning in a “hospital” learning all the different words associated with a potential visit. Not only does pretend play broaden their horizons in this way, but it helps to reduce anxiety as language and situations become more familiar. Personal vocabulary flourishes as they begin to use words appropriately and in context. Through imaginative play and role play, children learn to choose their words carefully so that others can understand what they are trying to communicate. In turn, children learn to listen properly to what others have to say, as they have to do this in order to understand what is going on around them and how they fit in - as essential skill for learning anything at school!
Thinking and problem solving:
All sorts of creative problem-solving abilities are applicable during imaginative play. It could be selecting materials to build a fort, or creating something new from common household materials. It also involves problems that may arise during playtime, such as two children wanting the same role or something going wrong in their pretend scenario. All of these examples and more are ways that a child can develop the cognitive abilities and skills they’ll use throughout life.
Many types of creative play are also great opportunities for kids to be active and get exercise. And for younger children still working on motor skills, imaginative play can give lots of practice for both gross and fine motor skills. As children play, they use gross motor skills, like climbing and jumping, as they pretend to be animals, superheroes, and more. Fine motor skills come into play with pretend money and coins, play food, dressing dolls with clothes, and playing with small cars or figurines. Pretend play also helps young children learn to self-regulate their movements and behaviors.
Encourage imaginative play
The importance of pretend play in child development is clear, and as parents or caregivers, it’s important to encourage this type of play in children. Here are some imaginative play ideas and pretend play games you can use to foster creativity and problem-solving in your kids:
Invite your children to recreate a favorite story or take it further and add their own twist. During your pretending game, prompt their ideas by asking questions like: “What do you think happened next?” and “What if the dog didn’t find his bone?”
Help kids come up with ideas for pretend play by suggesting situations that may interest them. Play house, astronaut, doctor, school, store, restaurant, superhero, veterinarian, or whatever you can think of. Have children role-play a scenario they recently encountered or help relieve anxiety about an upcoming appointment through pretend play.
No material, environment, or story can take the place of uninterrupted time to play and explore ideas. Pretend play doesn’t fit nicely into twenty minute segments. Be ok with leaving a post office in the living room for a few days to allow your children to fully explore and enhance their creative explorations.
Remember that you don’t need to schedule or orchestrate every hour of your child’s day. Leave room for lots of unstructured playtime so that they can come up with their own ideas. Limit screen time and allow for times of boredom to happen. This is when kids will use their creative skills to find something to do.
Involve them in your daily chores and incorporate incidental learning into these situations. For example, while you are preparing dinner, you might invite your child to cook alongside you with their play items.
Things to look for if your child is not playing in different ways:
All children differ in their thinking and learning styles that they can build on. Often you can play with their strengths and slowly build on their variety of play. If you are concerned about your child’s play, speak to your preschool teacher/other carers, GP, paediatrician, or an occupational therapist or speech pathologist.
Pretend play should be fun. When children let their imaginations take over and play together there are no limits to where their minds will go and the enjoyment they will have.