The Critical Role of Pretend Play During the Early Years

Little girl using a stethoscope on her mother. A child-size circus tent is sitting in the background.

Have you ever had a child offer you an imaginary ice cream cone, joyfully awaiting your response. Or maybe there’s suddenly an emergency in every corner of your home as your little one screeches the sound of a siren and rushes to the “scene.” Imaginative play or pretend play as it is commonly referred to, is a critical stage of development. This is a time when children exercise their imagination to create make-believe scenes.

👉 Quick Link: Pretend Play Toys from Skillmatics

What is Pretend Play?

Between the ages of 11 months to 4 years, children begin “pretend play.” Also known as creative play, fantasy play, or make-believe play, pretend play helps children channel the power of thinking on their feet. During pretend play a child simultaneously reacts to situations that are assigned to objects or spaces around them. For instance, they may pretend that an inanimate object is alive or check if the milk bottle is “too hot” to feed their doll.

Little girl in a white and blue dress is playing with her doll by feeding her through a bottle.

Pretend play is a complex game that results in a child’s mental, physical, spatial, and emotional development. It is highly innovative and allows children to express their creativity through different media. Researchers today highly recommend creating a safe and conducive environment for children to be comfortable enough to pretend play.

What are the Benefits of Pretend Play?

Pretend play involves many threads of learning that come together to shape a child’s growth through their key developmental years. Therefore, pretend play is essential for many reasons:

1. It Boosts Language Recognition and Development

Little girl is pointing at alphabets on a white board and is playing with her dolls. classroom pretend play

Creating different scenarios and acting out various roles enables your child to learn new words and add to their repertoire of vocal skills. They learn to recognize various concepts and apply them to their linguistic skills and hone their speech by continuous practice. While playing with other children, they also instill in themselves the confidence to communicate effectively and develop language clarity.

2. It Enhances Problem-Solving and Logical Reasoning Skills

Two boys sitting inside cardboard boxes pretending they are ships. one boy is using a paper roll as a telescope.

Pretend play is a thinking intensive activity that encourages the child to think of out-of-the-box conversations, ideas, and solutions. It also leads to development of logical reasoning and problem solving skills. While playing in groups, they stumble upon more issues when it comes to pairing up or picking roles. Finding solutions enhances a child’s critical thinking skills.

Imaginative play involves substituting the meaning attributed to many objects as well as devising fantastical scenarios. These could also include finding solutions to potential problems like pretending to rescue a cat from a tree or building a bridge over lava. Through this type of play children continue to apply their critical analysis and logic skills in an experiential and non-academic setting, which often proves to be more effective in knowledge retention and overall academic progress.

3. It Encourages Physical Development

One little girl and a boy playing with wooden sticks outdoors wearing construction caps.

When children use the space around them to devise elaborate scenarios, they explore their surroundings and become comfortable with their environment. Not only does this develop their gross motor skills, but also effectively improves fine motor skills. Activities like dressing up dolls, stacking up blocks, or building a pillow fort - involve using the fine motor muscles and building dexterity. Therefore children learn to subconsciously harness these skills and apply them in various real-life scenarios. 

4. It Paves a Path for Creative Imagination and Independent Thought

Little girl reaching for a plate from a children

There is no doubt that pretend play requires imagination. Creative inspiration and thinking creates a space for expression, imagination, and liberation. It helps keep the mind agile and fresh, teeming with new perspectives on how one interacts and engages with the world around them. Creative play is important for children as they learn to express their individuality and creative potential.

5. It Enhances Their Emotional Skills and Collaborative Learning Experiences

Two girls standing in front of a pillow fort. one is playing the guitar and the other is singing through a microphone.

Pretend play is the first lesson in social interaction and networking for children. Children apply the nuances of socializing and learn to communicate with their parents and friends in make-believe scenarios inspired by real-life situations.

These games are an excellent way for children to experiment with and understand social boundaries and interactions. This also leads to positive emotional growth and the fostering of compassion and competence in dealing with their own emotions as well as of those around them. Through different roles, such as doctor or teacher they also begin to empathize with others and see the world through their eyes.  

Pretend play encourages a trial-and-error model of play where the child can recreate scenarios as many times as they’d like. Pretend play has no stress of performing well and so they develop these skills on their own terms.

How Can I Encourage Children to Engage in Pretend Play?

A mother and daughter are having a pretend tea-party in front of a white couch in the living room

An environment that is conducive for pretend play does not require an elaborate setting or toys and tools. At the end, it is all about how inventively children can express themselves and engage in role-play and make-believe scenarios. Encouraging pretend play is a simple process, requiring small, consistent steps to nudge the children to harness their imaginative potential. Some of these steps include:

1. Scheduling a Time for Play

Scheduling an hour of fun gives them the liberty to spend it the way they like. Providing a specific time for their leisure activities can bring discipline into their lives, while also providing structure to their routine. This encourages children to understand that this time is a safe space for them to explore their interests and just have fun without the pressures of performing well. This could also include playdates with other children or outings like picnics, where the children could collaborate with others and have a change of scene to work on various kinds of pretend play scenarios.

2. Giving Them Open-Ended Materials

Simple materials like art and craft supplies, blocks, kitchen sets, dolls, and other such toys require children to actively involve themselves to spring them to life. These toys are also a great screen-time distraction and give children a creative outlet to explore their inquisitiveness in building scenarios to fuel their creative appetite. They may choose to incorporate these toys in the scenes they enact, or maybe they design the scene based on them. Either way, these toys will provide them with the space to explore the extent of their imagination.

3. Being Involved and Supportive

Sometimes engagement in pretend play can be as simple as picking up two of their cars and making them race. Children could also involve you in the scenarios they fashion which could result in precious bonding moments and core memories.

You could also simply support or encourage them as they play. Giving your child space and letting go of parental control can give children the liberty to engage in pretend play. For example, if they want to use chess pieces as pawns in another game or stack LEGOs in a different order than you’d prefer - let them! Supporting their creativity is an important step towards providing them with the confidence to continue pretend play escapades. 

4. Creating a Community and Space for Sharing

Get their friends involved. Help them build a community of friends who can come over, or who they can head out to the park with so that they can add a taste of realism to their pretend play scenarios.

Sharing thoughts and ideas with each other can help them improve their games. By understanding the perspectives of other people, they also explore their own emotional depth and become open to differing viewpoints - an important lesson for their overall social and emotional growth.

What Kind of Games Can be Included in Pretend Play?

A father and son duo playing on the floor with toy cars.

Creative freedom is inherent to pretend play sessions. The following are some games that will help your child channel their creative freedom and exercise the same during their pretend play sessions-

1. Playing Dress-up Games

Pretending to be a medieval knight, firefighter, zoo scientist, race car driver, a secret agent, or any other role that they imagine can be highly engaging. The process of designing their costume itself leaves much room for creative exploration as they fashion the perfect costume from whatever they can find around the house.

2. Building a Fort of Fun

A fortified location that is closed off to routines, lectures, and lessons is the perfect place to engage in some imaginative play. Use pillows, mattresses, blankets, and more to make their pretend play session an exciting one. Setting up a fort will require them to use their problem solving, collaboration, and fine and gross motor skills - all while they have tons of fun.

3. Making a Cardboard Time Machine

Any old cardboard box can be transformed into a “time machine” for plenty of imaginary play. This can be a great way to introduce children to new locations and indirectly teach them about different time periods and places. For budding archaeologists and explorers, this game can lead to exciting adventures from the comfort of their homes.

4. Organizing Indoor Olympics

Start the “Olympics” off  with the opening ceremony, before competing in events like relay races. If you have enough participants, judges can hold out scorecards for each player. For the closing ceremony, present the children with DIY medals created from aluminum foil and ribbon. These games are sure to be enshrined in the hall of family memories.

5. Playing My World

Suitable for three year olds, My World by Skillmatics is imaginative and educational. By building over 20 colorful animals, children can not only harness their problem-solving skills, but also have little animal friends to go on many exciting adventures with.

6. Playing Lola’s Pizza Parlor

In this pretend-play activity, creatively designed by Skillmatics, your child can learn to count numbers up to fifteen while serving some of the most delicious pizzas in town. With Lola, children get to create their own pizza place and come up with creative recipes for their restaurant.

Little girl in a scientist costume playing with test tubes. She is wearing a green pair of safety goggles.

Pretend play plays an important role in children’s development through their formative years. While diving into fantastical scenarios and lands, children learn important real-life applications and skills that will change the way they perceive situations, people, and the world around them. Pretend play sessions help them build on emotional maturity while widening their perspectives, building their critical thinking, and problem solving skills.

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