Pretend Play: The Work of Childhood

We’ve all heard that play is the work of childhood and it’s true. And pretend play–pretending to be a dinosaur or a king or queen, is a specific kind of play that children benefit from in many ways.

We don’t have to encourage most children to pretend; in fact, pretend play is universal amongst children from about the ages of two and a half to six or seven years of age. Left to their own devices, children will engage in imaginary conversations and adventures. And, research has shown that children engage in pretend play with more intensity and intentionality than in more formal play, such as a baseball game or board game.

When children design a play scenario, they are doing a lot of “work.” First, they decide upon the fantasy world. Maybe they decide they want to explore space. Then, they assign the characters to their roles. Maybe there is a spaceman and a pet monkey, both set to explore. And then, in the course of the “acting out,” they may encounter a problem to be solved. The monkey gets scared and won’t enter the spacecraft. Just think of all the creativity and problem-solving that is happening in that story.

When children engage in pretend play, they’re doing a lot more than playing. First, one of them comes up with a play idea and creates the play scenario. Second, he or she convinces others to join in the fantasy and then the negotiations begin as to which role each will play. What will happen? What is the story they will act out? Third, the children act out the fantasy, pretending and allowing the story to unfold as they go.

All of the above activities involve the social skills of negotiation, empathy for others. and the ability to orchestrate a plan. In addition, children will share their joint knowledge of the vocabulary involved with a certain scenario. For example, in playing King and Queen, they may use such words as castle, moat, prince and princesses, and knights. And, they may experiment with kingly and queenly language such as “You shall serve me.” Or “Yes, Your Highness.” 

As the pretend play continues, there will invariably be opportunities for social skill development. When a child goes off-script, the others have to pull him back in. If an argument arises, one of the group needs to intervene with a solution. The rules must be decided on and then implemented. Often, the negotiations for rules and how to play take up a major part of the pretend session. Not to worry. These negotiations are an important part of the entire process.

In pretend play, major life themes are explored. The superhero wants to save the world, fears and insecurities are overcome, and good always wins over evil. This is important work for young children. Some of the universal themes recurring in fantasy play are: good vs. bad, big vs. little, brave vs. cowardly, security vs. fear and love vs. hate.

In many schools today, pretend play has been taken out of the curriculum in favor of “lessons.” So it’s even more important for parents to encourage this sort of open-ended, but extremely important, play in the home. Here are some things you can do to encourage your children to jump into fantasy.

  • Read children’s books that are rich in fantasy. Fairy tales, folktales and adventure stories help children envision other worlds and environments. They also provide basic vocabulary for play in a new realm.
  • Provide props and dress-up clothing to invite pretend play. It doesn’t take much: an old scarf, a bike helmet, a plastic sword, whatever you have that can spark imagination.
  • As your child plays, ask leading questions such as, “What are your animals up to today? Are they on a camping trip or are they flying to the moon?” Once children get the idea of pretend play, they’ll come up with their own ideas and plans.
  • As much as possible, allow the children to organize and play out their scenes independently. Even if arguments ensue, it’s best to let children find their own solutions to the problems. You might want to ask questions after the fact such as, “How did your trip to the moon go?” or “What else could you have said when Jon was angry earlier?”
  • Be a cheerleader for your child’s creative ideas. In all areas of play–arts and crafts, hands-on play with Play-Doh or water, and in pretend play–be the encourager who invites your child into the world of fantasy and champions her efforts.

When children are left on their own to create their pretend experiences, they’ll be honing their communication and negotiation skills. They’ll be extending their vocabularies and learning to compromise. They’ll try to keep the story going and they’ll problem solve when it stalls. And, when they’re through flying to the moon or saving the planet from disaster, they’ll go on to another story and then be finished in time for dinner.

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24 Jun 2021

By Jan Pierce. M.Ed

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