Childhood pretend play builds critical skills for later years

Every area of development – physical, cognitive, communication and social/emotional – can be enhanced when children engage in pretend play or make-believe.

Pretend play is the work-horse of children's early learning. Photo credit: Pixabay.
Pretend play is the work-horse of children's early learning. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Just wander through the aisles of toys at any department store and you will see lots of toys that are just like items that adults use: doll, kitchen sets, cars and trucks, lawn mowers, and so on. Children want to do the same things that they see Mom and Dad doing such as caring for babies, cooking meals and mowing the grass. Imitating what adults and older children do is an important way that young children learn about life. Every area of development – physical, cognitive, communication and social/emotional – can be enhanced through engaging in pretend play or make-believe.

Children practice controlling the small muscles of their wrists, hands and fingers as they hold a baby bottle up to a doll’s mouth or turn a toy screwdriver around and around. Learning to control these muscles is fine motor development, part of the physical domain of development. Large muscle control is practiced when children sit up, crawl, walk, run and climb. It takes years for us to develop the coordination we need to drive a car or hit a baseball into right field and children begin that physical development when they move around their environment. That is why it is so important to give children some space to move around in and join them in physical activities like pretending you are horses running or giving a piggy-back ride.

Thinking through problems can be a good exercise for developing cognitive skills. Looking for a cup for each doll to have their tea in is a math skill, as is matching a driver for each space vehicle. Playing with a set of plastic nuts and bolts and finding the right-sized nut to thread on to your bolt is problem-solving, too. These small challenges help a child to think and plan their actions just like adults do. As they play make-believe tea time or auto repair, they are practicing adult skills.

Communication skills are vital for adults, too, and pretend play can really enhance a child’s skills in this area. How often have parents overheard their toddler chatting away to themselves as he or she plays? Children will often narrate their own play, saying out loud what they are doing or imitating conversations that they have heard among adults. Practicing monologues in pretend play is useful in developing oral skills, which lead to reading and writing as older children. But, to really boost a child’s communication skills, you need to encourage dialogue between your child and other people. Joining your child in pretend play, having conversations about their play and playing “roles” with them can really improve their literacy skills later.

Early childhood literacy experts Dickinson and Sprague (2002) conducted research and found that the more time young children spent conversing with other children in pretend play the higher their scores were in literacy tests at the end of kindergarten. Children as young as 18 months old used a specialized “language of play” modeled by their mothers in make – believe play (Haight and Miller, 1993). Early childhood research suggests that giving your child time and conversation while they pretend they are a hostess or a mechanic can pay-off later in good reading and writing skills.

Finally, playing pretend with other children or adults helps children learn the social skills they will need to get along in a world full of people. In pretend play, children actually practice taking on adult roles such as a parent, a cook, a doctor or a fire fighter. It provides children the opportunity to deal with relationships between people and work out strategies to such issues as sharing with others, caring for people, providing help to others and accepting help from others. Without these early opportunities, children find it difficult when they enter preschool or kindergarten and must use social skills to negotiate their classroom and their community. Pretend play gives them a safe and secure place to practice these skills and learn to manage their own feelings.

Pretend play is the work-horse of children’s early learning. They can rehearse scenes they’ve observed and create new experiences. They can practice physical skills, thinking skills, communication skills and social/emotional skills. And, the best part is, they have fun while learning. What could be better than that?

For more information about pretend play and literacy development visiting the website Reading Rockets: Teaching kids to read and helping those who struggle.  

For more articles on child development, early childhood education, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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