Fear of Missing Something
Unfortunately, oftentimes parents get in the way of pretend play reminding their child to do something more “constructive”, like going over sight words or doing homework. Parents sometimes fear that if their child engages in activities that are non-school related s/he will miss out on something important. That couldn’t be further from the truth! Actually, it’s exactly the other way round! Children who don’t have an opportunity to play symbolically are the ones missing out on learning important lessons on various domains. Obviously, I am not here to argue about the merit of educational activities, but to advocate for imaginative play and remind you not to discount it.
A Whole New World…
A whole new world is exactly what opens up roughly between the ages of 18 months to 8 years of age, when children engage in pretend play. How do children learn about the world around them? How do they figure out what are the social and emotional rules? How do they learn to solve and resolve issues? If you think about it, there’s no subject matter that explicitly teaches all that. Is through experience and the ability to think in our minds plans and execute them. And what better and safer way to do that than being a child and having all the time and opportunities to start exploring the world?
The Benefits of Imaginary Play
Just looking at the list of the benefits of imaginary play, as summarized in scientific research, makes my heart sing! Children who are allowed and encouraged to engage in pretend play start making sense of the world around them in a fresh and experiential manner. They gather information, they organize and combine it in novel ways, they generate ideas, they figure new, innovative ways of looking at familiar things, they learn to reason and expect consequences. I love the example of the tea-party theme: children pretend they drink tea out of cups (that may or may not exist), adding imaginary sugar or lemon, stirring, blowing before pretending to take the first sip and when teddy-bear, one of the guests, accidentally spills his tea, everybody helps him clean up the (imaginary) mess! Through such play experiences children practice life skills like problem-solving, negotiating, organizing, sequencing, etc.
Besides the cognitive part, creating and organizing a scene, knowing what needs to be done first, what comes second, etc., children also practice social and emotional skills. They learn to regulate their emotions, express them appropriately, deal with negative feelings and, most of all, to create a positive emotional environment for themselves and their friends. Right here is another benefit of pretend play: children learn to initiate, sustain, and appreciate relationships with others.
Creating a Pretend-Play Corner at Home
Forget expensive toys and equipment (by the way, have you noticed how often toddlers prefer common household items to toys?). You can nurture your child’s imagination providing:
• Cardboard boxes of different sizes (they make great houses, ships, rockets, beds…)
• A selection of clothes, shoes, hats, purses, accessories you no longer use
• Cooking utensils (cups, plates, dishes, pots, pans, napkins, etc.)
• Empty boxes/containers of various products (check for safety)
• Old office supplies
• Old magazines, newspapers, paper bags
• Old blankets, bedsheets, pieces of wrapping paper and different fabric, bows, ribbons…
• Used objects that can be used in pretend play, such as tickets, theater programs, foreign coins, stamps, old telephones, cameras, etc.
• A variety of writing materials (plain paper, colored paper, post-its, different sizes of paper pads) to use for making notes, writing messages, taking orders (as in a restaurant).
Favorite Pretend Play Ideas (according to my kids)
Restaurant play- children set up restaurant. They create the space, have customers (stuffed animals, dolls and whoever over the age of ten happens to be around-which is usually myself), use pretend play stuff from their toy chest or borrow from my kitchen, take orders (I love their inventive spelling!), prepare and serve food.
Tea party- Similar to the above, only (pretend) tea is served!
Kitchen- cooking and baking galore! Stove is needed (pretend or play item) but the most fun part is the dishes the kids create.
Grocery store- they set up shop and have stuffed animals and friends go shopping. Items usually include containers and empty cereal boxes from the pantry, shopping cart, cash-registrar complete with fake money (as part of a play set) and lots of imagination, as there are so many adventures taking place in the grocery store (and many creatures hiding in dark corners!).
Airplane trip- a bed or couch is turned into an airplane and the kids travel. They love using their binoculars (one set is real and good quality, the other set though is made of two empty toilet-paper rolls held together with tape and I have to admit that my twins regularly fight over who’s getting the toilet-paper binoculars!). They use parachutes (balloons) and explore the globe!
Pirates- aforementioned bed or couch easily turns into a pirate’s ship (the bed is next to the window, so the curtain becomes the sail, staying in place with the help of a broom). Shoe-boxes have turned into treasure trunks, they have their hand-made maps and lots of good ideas as to where they need to go to have endless adventures.
Art gallery- using art materials (the everyday paper, crayons, markers) to create beautiful pictures is the start of this fun activity. We then tape the pictures on the window glass or the wall, we put a title under each picture (sometimes the kids make brochures) and they set up a table with snacks (because what kind of gallery opening would it be without something to munch on?). The kids love to frame their work (they draw frames around their picture or glue straws around the edges of the paper) and sell it!
Camping under the kitchen table- my kids’ favorite version is when they turn the table into a tent, using old bedsheets (blankets are heavy and tend to fall), take pillows and a snack.
Vet clinic- stuffed animals along with imaginary animals visit the vet clinic my kids set up (they used to have a proper vet clinic play tent that at some point got ripped) and they get in all kinds of wild adventures (with lots of good cheer and empathy I should add) to treat and support the ailing patients.
Bot-bot here comes robot- grandfather invented this game! He walks slowly, deliberately, making big, stiff strides while chanting “bot-bot, here comes robot” (he manages to make it rhyme really nicely!) and the kids run away or try to get the robot. A recent addition to the game involves “wearing” a brown bag with lots of robotic designs on it (split it open, then keep it together around child’s waste with tape) and the strainer as a robot hat!
Ashiabi, G.S. (2007). Play in the preschool classroom: Its socioemotional significance and the teacher’s role in play. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35, 199-207.
Seja, A.L., & Russ, S.W. (1999). Children’s fantasy play and emotional understanding. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 28, 269-277.
Singer, D.G.& Singer, J.L. (2005). Imagination and play in the electronic age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Singer, J.L. & Lythcott, M.A. (2004). Fostering school achievement and creativity through sociodramatic play in the classroom. In E. F. Zigler, D.G. Singer & S. J. Bishop-Joseph (Eds.) Children’s play: The roots of reading, pp. 77-93. Washington DC: Zero to Three Press.