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The value of pretend play

Pretend play helps your child develop important emotional, social and thinking skills.

If you live with a toddler, on any given day you might be keeping company with a pirate, a ballerina, a famous chef or a dragon-slaying knight.

Toddlers love to imagine and pretend. This play may seem to be just good fun. But there's more going on than meets the eye.

Pretend play is active learning. It allows kids to practice mental, social and emotional skills that are important to their development, according to Zero to Three. Kids usually show a jump in their ability to use imagination between the ages of 2 and 3 years.

The benefits of pretend play

Children may use pretend play to act out how they feel about tough times in their pint-size world. For example, they may make up scenes about kids saying goodbye to a parent at day care. Or they may pretend that they're meeting new friends. Practicing and mastering these skills through play can give them the confidence to face real situations. It also helps them develop a good self-image.

Creating ideas and acting them out in detail also help kids build thinking skills. For example, a common part of pretend play is making believe one object is another. They might pretend that a block is a phone or that a doll is a baby. This type of thinking helps build math and reading skills too. And kids like to pretend to do the jobs they see adults doing, such as cooking, fixing things or caring for kids. This helps them learn what it means to care for the people and things in their world.

Finally, pretend play—especially through the use of imaginary friends—can give kids a creative way to try different activities, lines of conversation, behaviors and emotions.

How to nurture pretend play

As you spend time with your child, you will likely be asked to join in their world of pretend play. Kids love having grown-ups involved. They especially like adults to let them direct the fun. As you play, ask your child questions like "Who should I be?" and "What do I do next?"

When you join your child's pretend world, you make him or her feel important. Kids may be more willing to share ideas, thoughts and feelings. Pretend play also gives you a chance to show your child some of the skills they'll need in the future. For example, your child might act out something that is scary or confusing. Using pretend play, you can show how to deal with these fears.

If being a dragon or a princess isn't up your alley, don't worry. You can encourage your child's pretend play in many ways:

  • Keep drawing tools, clay and blocks around the house and easy to get to.
  • Have blankets and sheets handy. They make great tents and playhouses.
  • Fill a box with old clothes and accessories that your child can wear.
  • Allow household items, such as brooms, pots and pans, or other safe kitchen utensils, to be used for pretending.
  • Make up songs about everyday things with your child.
  • Ask your child questions about what he or she thinks, sees and does.

The simplest way to nurture kids' imaginations? Give them time and space and let them play freely. Young children don't need a full slate of structured activities to grow and learn. In fact, kids show more creativity when they are given choices about what to do.

Just have fun with your child. Enjoy all the places imagination can take you.

Reviewed 12/5/2022

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This information is provided for educational purposes only. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare providers regarding medical care or treatment, as recommendations, services or resources are not a substitute for the advice or recommendation of an individual's physician or healthcare provider. Services or treatment options may not be covered under an individual's particular health plan.