Pretend play sparks imagination and gives children important skills

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With her tiny fingers inside large, plastic gloves, Haley tapped the end of a plastic stethoscope on Zayden’s chest.  The 4-year-old doctor listened carefully for her patient’s heartbeat.

Satisfied that his heart is intact, Haley moved on to the next problem bothering her patient — a scratch on his face.

“Where does it hurt?” she asked the 4-year-old boy.

“Right here,” he said as he pointed to his cheek.

Haley grabbed a Band-Aid and pressed it on the side of Zayden’s face. Then she was off to the kitchen where she began making soup on the stove.

Welcome to the world of pretend play where children are not only using their imagination and creativity, but also learning important developmental skills.

“Through pretend play, children learn to take turns, problem solve with others, negotiate, understand feelings of others, and share responsibility,” said Laura Woodall, a lead teacher at Oakland Family Services’ Children’s Learning Center in Walled Lake. “They also are learning social/emotional and language skills.”

Social and Emotional Skills

When children engage in pretend play, they are developing social and emotional skills. Whether they are pretending to be a doctor or a hair stylist, they are learning how to negotiate, take turns and compromise. Through role-playing, children observe how other people react in different situations and develop empathy.

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“Young children are very egocentric,” Woodall explained. “At this point in their development, they only think about themselves without taking into account the feelings of others. During pretend play, they learn to understand the feelings of others. They realize if I take and grab something from someone, it hurts their feelings. They are learning to deal with empathy and emotions.”

Language skills

Pretend play helps children understand the power of language. Research shows the more words children hear early in life, the more success they will have in school and beyond. For example, when children pretend to go to the grocery store, they are expanding their vocabulary and learning pre-reading skills.

“One child will write a grocery list while another child reads the list and gathers the items,” Woodall said. “The list may have a picture and the first letter of the word, such as a bowl of soup and the letter S. The child gets out a pan, a can of soup, and says, ‘I am making the soup!’ They make a connection between the spoken and written language, which later helps them learn to read.”

Pretend play at home

Pretend play doesn’t require name-brand toys. Items laying around the house will work just fine. Spoons, pots and pans, old cell phones, jewelry, old clothes, sunglasses, cereal boxes, aprons and empty shampoo bottles are a few items children can use. Place them in a laundry basket or bin for easy access.

“The simplest things we have can be of interest to the kids,” Woodall said. “If you just watch what they do with them, it’s amazing. I had a boy who used a hairspray bottle as a fire extinguisher and ran around the room putting out a fire. I’ve also seen kids use hair scrunchies as superhero wrist bands that have power.”

Remember to join your child in their make believe world and enjoy the journey!