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The ever-changing, unpredictable world of play is more than a place where children can seek dragons or explore the depths of the sea alongside a mermaid. In this haunting domain of outlandish dreams, one can build skyscrapers made of squishy salami sandwiches, or build a ladder to the moon made of spider’s silk. Children can ask a wise old goat a question atop the highest mountain, or they can feast on bean burritos and ice cream with aliens on the moon.

Pretend play is more than a chance to go on a magical, wacky, scary, or wild adventure in our own backyard. Pretend play, fully developed and supported, can provide a context for a unique form of education. High-level pretend play should be nurtured and prioritized as the activity most beneficial for children’s social and emotional development.

What is High-Level Pretend Play?

  • In this form of play, children are empowered to make important decisions about what will work for the roles they are enacting – When children are encouraged to play this way daily, they are provided with infinite opportunities to rapidly grow their experience and capacity when they take on a multitude of roles.
  • Provides opportunities for children to identify which tools or props they will use, and to define how they will use them – Children use props and clothing to enhance their dramatic play, and are resourceful and imaginative in using simple props. A stick, for example, can serve as a magic wand, a broomstick, or a galloping pony.

Benefits of High-Level Pretend Play:

  • Children learn to occupy themselves, delay gratification, and innovate in response to problems – Developing complex hierarchies of short-term and long-term goals, they learn how to follow their own intrinsic motivation and come up with their own ideas. Should boredom strike, they are always able to make a quick escape to the land of imaginative plenty.
  • Children experience the joy of self-discovery, the freedom to pursue their own ideas without constraint or a need to be “correct” – They naturally develop creative problem-solving skills and positive attitudes in the face of challenge – the beginnings of determined innovation.

What can adults learn from observing pretend play?

  • Parents have an opportunity to gain new insights and deeper understanding of their child’s thinking and emotions
  • Parts of the child’s personality are revealed that might not otherwise be exposed – including the development of their sense of humor and personality quirks, but also potential behavioral issues that may need to be dealt with.

Supporting children in learning how to play should be as intentional and systematic as teaching literacy or math, and at the same time, parents must limit their intervention, and allow their child to direct as much of their play as possible. Though pushing children is tempting, accelerated academic instruction is not optimal for them, as it pressures toddlers to perform like preschoolers, and preschoolers to perform like first-graders. Instead, children only need be encouraged to play.

Though it is true that preschool children are not quite old enough to comprehend the abilities they are learning during pretend play – this is an introspective skill that comes later on in elementary school – Preschoolers are learning plenty every time they take on a new perspective by playing a new role. They can learn as much by playing the nurturing role of a mommy or a daddy as they can by imagining what it is like to be a brave fire fighter or a scuba diver.

Supplying inspiration and expansive ideas for play roles is one of the most important ways a parent can support high-level pretend play for their children. High-level pretend play should not be considered simply a way to pass the time, but should be prioritized as constructive time spent solidifying and expanding a child’s sense of the world.

To enhance their child’s learning, parents can simply expand and enrich play, taking particular care to listen, observe and utilize their child’s natural inclinations.