Whether they’re playing make believe with other kids or alone with their stuffed animals, dolls or action figures, children’s capacity to invent worlds and stories seems limitless. From outrageous fantasies like pirate adventures and jungle safaris to more realistic make-believe scenarios like “house” or “school” there’s something incredible about watching your kiddos lose themselves in a game of “pretend,” isn’t there?
But whether your little ones realize it or not, the magic of pretend play is about more than immersive fun. Study after study has revealed that unstructured, imaginative play is critical to a child’s development in several critical areas.
Pretend Play’s Role in Social, Emotional and Cognitive Development
As kids work together to convert playpens into magical fortresses or build fairy cities out of sticks, stones and acorns, they’re building the mental muscles they’ll need to be successful in school and beyond. In fact, in an NPR interview promoting their September 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, George Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt theorized that, if children are not given enough opportunity to engage in unstructured, pretend play, they may grow up to find they don’t have the soft skills they need to excel in the “real world.”
Here are the four developmental areas that benefit from pretend play:
In engaging in pretend play with their friends and peers, children learn organically how to work as a team, how to solve interpersonal problems, how to listen (and make their own voices heard) and how to empathize. Given ample time to develop these skills on their own, through trial and error, in the throes of make believe, kids will be more equipped to handle conflicting personalities and complex relationships as they get older.
Much like fiction does for reading-age children (and adults, too), pretend play offers kids a safe space to explore their feelings as they encounter new events and scenarios. If you’ve ever watched your kiddo play doctor, carefully giving “shots” to either friends or dolls, or imitating a particularly intimidating teacher, you’ve seen this in action. By engaging in pretend play, children are able to work through unfamiliar emotions and mentally prepare for stressful situations and important life events.
Critical Thinking Skills
Have you ever considered how much coordination it takes for your kids and their friends to open their own pillow-fort library or cook up an imaginary five-course meal? The scenarios children invent for themselves during pretend play are often incredibly complex, expansive and detailed, and in navigating the minutiae of their fantasy worlds, the kiddos learn how to think flexibly, applying their background knowledge to new scenarios, testing hypotheses and solving problems as they arise.
How often does your little one surprise you by tossing out a word or phrase—pronounced correctly and in exactly the right context—that you’re pretty sure you just learned last week? Studies have shown that the magic of pretend play even extends to language development. Research has shown that play-based activities lower kiddos’ affective filters and kick start their language learning by giving them low-pressure opportunities to try out new words or sentence constructions and encouraging them to practice future, subjunctive and conditional tenses. Even better, they experience firsthand the power of words to bring complicated stories and feelings to life.
Encouraging Kids to Make Believe
In a world where electronics are the go-to sources of entertainment, it can be tough to pry your kiddos away from their screens and activate their imaginations. But there are several ways parents can inspire their kids to engage in pretend play.
First, talk to them about a broad range of topics, and read to them from a variety of sources. No matter how outlandish, kids’ make-believe scenarios are inspired from real-life experiences and observations. In her 2008 book, The Case for Make Believe, Dr. Susan Linn encourages parents not only to read to their children but to make reading time interactive, asking questions like, “Why do you think he did that,” or “What do you think happens next?” Ask similar open-ended questions about things you watch on TV or hear on the radio when you’re with your children, encouraging them to think creatively and add to their library of make-believe source material.
Similarly, provide simple, low-tech toys and “props” to spur their creativity by encouraging them to make up their own sound effects and stories instead of leaning on preprogrammed ones. Art supplies, too, make great springboards for creativity.
But perhaps most importantly, give your kiddos the time and space to make believe. In today’s go-go-go society, we have a tendency to structure every minute of every day, but if we’re always asking our kids to focus on a prescribed activity, we’re preventing them from exercising their imagination and experiencing the magic of pretend play.
At Little Land, we offer a safe, supervised environment for kids to do just that. Our play gyms are designed to develop physical, emotional and social strength while allowing kids to let their imaginations run wild.