By Patti Rommel, Director of Research and Development at Lakeshore Learning Materials
Does your child love to dress up as a fearless superhero and conquer menacing villains, or reenact a scene from his or her favorite movie with friends? Maybe your little one can transform a cardboard box into a bottomless treasure chest … with just his or her imagination! If so, your child is engaging in pretend play, an essential part of childhood development that’s as natural as walking and talking.
However, because children are “playing,” parents often do not realize the true impact of these wondrous and imagination-building activities. By understanding the benefits and encouraging pretend play, you can help your child build skills vital to development, including:
• Creativity: As adults, we often have to think creatively to solve problems and make discoveries.When children engage in pretend play, they flex their creative muscles in a big way. Children can imagine something in their minds, and then use objects in their environment to make it real. A blanket over a table becomes a castle; a laundry basket becomes a sailboat.
• Language and Literacy: Research has shown that the number of spoken words a child knows and uses has a great impact on future reading success. Pretend play fosters oral language development by encouraging children to talk, test out and use new words as they take on different roles and characters. While playing fire station, for example, they may begin to use new words such as “rescue,” “sparks” and “oxygen.” When playing with friends, children often teach each other new words. Children can also begin to recognize words in print when using props such as menus while playing restaurant. All these elements of imaginative play help build your child’s vocabulary.
• Cognitive and Math Skills: Whether they are sorting rocks, building structures or using plastic coins, pretend play helps children develop important early math skills such as comparing, measuring, counting and recognizing shapes. Your child might cook up fun in a bakery by adding up play money and counting cookies made with moldable dough.
• Social-emotional Skills: As children engage in imaginative play and pretend to be someone else, they practice seeing the world from another person’s perspective. This helps develop empathy and understanding. When playing with others, they learn to take turns, share, cooperate and compromise (“You be the firefighter this time, and I’ll be the firefighter next time”). They learn to work together to solve problems.
Here are some simple, everyday tips to encourage pretend play and make it more meaningful:
Provide a balance between screen time and pretend play. If your child spends an hour on the computer playing games or watching a movie, make sure he or she spends at least that amount of time, or more, playing with the screens off.
Create a list of pretend adventures with your child. Has your child shown an interest in a particular topic? If so, list several adventures with that topic in mind. For example, if your child is interested in animals, add “create your own zoo” or “pretend to be a gorilla at the zoo” to the list. If you’ve recently seen a movie, add an adventure with one of your child’s favorite characters to the list. Then, when your child asks, “What’s next?” you can pull out the list and encourage them to choose a new adventure and act it out.
Supply props. A few simple props can provide hours of imaginative fun! You might inspire an airplane adventure with a few chairs, a map and a suitcase, or create a post office with old bills, envelopes, stickers and a tote bag! You’ll be surprised by what you and your child will come up with! You might open a footwear store with some old pairs of shoes and a stack of play money; create a fire truck by covering a large box with red paper, adding a yellow paper ladder, a paper plate for a steering wheel and a belt from a robe to make a fire hose; create a zoo with plastic or stuffed animals and use boxes or blocks to build pens; break out your old Halloween costumes and let your child create a variety of new adventures.
Set up play dates. It can help your child build friendships. Start the play date with a structured activity (such as an art project or game) to allow children to get comfortable with each other and break the ice. Then pull out your list of adventures and encourage the pretend play to begin.
Join in the fun. The most important gift you can give your child is your time. Set aside a small block of time to join your child in pretend play. Nothing will encourage them more than when you are a customer at their store, or a character in their adventure. Inspire them by asking questions such as, “Who should I be?” or “Where are we going?”
Patti Rommel is Director of Research and Development at Lakeshore Learning Materials, producers of children’s educational products. A former elementary educator, Patti leads Lakeshore’s efforts to create quality, standards-based materials for early childhood programs, elementary classrooms and homes nationwide.