Why children love to pretend

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

Jasmine and Ray are sitting on the floor playing together. Jasmine suggests Ray lie down and “go to sleep” because it is bedtime. She gets up to choose a blanket and uses it to cover her friend Ray, who follows along and lies down. Jasmine then gets a book and starts showing Ray pictures.

Amy and Jack are building a town with blocks. The short blocks are the school and post office. The tall blocks are the apartment buildings and there are little people throughout the town. They lift the little people and have them go to the different parts of their town, talking the whole time. Amy pretends to take her dog to the veterinarian.

As children develop their vocabulary and begin to interact more with other children, they start to use their imagination to play pretend. This imaginary play is a natural and powerful tool that allows children to develop their social-emotional and cognitive skills in which they can reenact the social interactions they are exposed to daily.

With pretend conversations, they try to understand the adults and events in their lives. They work out questions and wonderings they have by role-playing. When taking on different roles such as a mother or kitten or blue-skinned alien with antennae, children learn to negotiate with each other and mutually agree on the roles and the rules of their game. This helps them learn to socialize and cooperate with their friends or siblings or otherworldly beings. They are also working out what it means to follow the rules of their house, classroom, and world.

So, what takes place when children use their imagination in role-playing? They:

  • Practice understanding other people by trying various roles and points of view and learn how to consider the feelings of others

  • Get a chance to express, discover and experiment with different feelings

  • Exercise regulating their own emotions

  • Develop language and communication skills

  • Problem solve and consider alternative outcomes, which encourages emotional and cognitive development

Ok, cool! Great! But how can we encourage our kids to use their imagination and reap all these benefits? Here are some tips:

  • Go to the park or make playdates. Although children can use their imagination while playing alone, engaging in social activities helps them learn from each other

  • Omit bright-colored screens often used to keep children quiet. For them to access and exercise their imagination, it’s vital that children actively participate in their playtime instead of being passively entertained

  • Help them make up their own story or tell a story together. Start with “Once upon a time…” then what happened? Oh, yeah? Amazing! What next!?

  • Don’t force creativity. You don’t need to! This young age is when they have pure, raw artistry. Allow them to make up their own rules and engage in the activities that they choose, which may not align with what you would like them to do. Let them lead and create their own reality. It’s the only time in their lives they’ll get to! And don’t forget to participate. Now it’s your turn to follow the rules of their game. After all, they are constantly (mostly) (kind of) following ours.

Lastly, read up!

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