Pretend Play and Your Preschooler

Children love to dress up and pretend play. One visit to any well-equipped childcare center and you’ll see a variety of dress up clothes, doctors’ kits, plastic food, and usually even a kitchen. You’ll see children become superheroes, fairy princesses, waiters and waitresses, and doctors and nurses, just to name a few! They’ll slay dragons that you didn’t even know were lurking around the bushes. They’ll fly around in their magical kingdom and sprinkle the world below with fairy dust. They’ll save the world from imminent danger, moving cars and buildings with incredible strength, keeping us all safe to see another day. They may even save your life from a terminal illness you didn’t even realize that you had. And at the end of the day, one of them will most likely take your order and serve you up the most delicious meal they can imagine. Yes, preschoolers have the most incredible imaginations out there, and when they take what they know about the world so far and combine it with what they think could possibly happen, they create the most amazing and inventive stories. But the most incredible part of it all is that all this imaginative pretend play is so much fun that they don’t even realize how much they are learning!

Have you ever wondered how your preschooler comes up with all those crazy ideas? Why would they pretend to slay a dragon when dragons clearly don’t exist? It’s fascinating to know that it all starts with what they know to be real! Children learn by taking what they know about their world and then they go exploring to discover new information. Think about how quickly a baby learns that pushing a certain button will make their toy play music. Soon after, that baby will try a different button just to see what happens there. They take the knowledge that they have learned and then they apply it to another area to see what happens! Preschoolers work similarly, only their thoughts are a little more complex because they know so much more about their world. They take ideas and situations that they see in a movie or hear about in a book, and they apply their own form of logic to it to create a scenario. Because their brains are developed enough to piece this information together, but not enough to reason out reality vs. fiction, the results are often the most crazy concoction of silliness you’ll ever hear! But in this situation, silliness is perfectly acceptable! Soon enough they’ll be rationalizing out the reality, but for now they get the opportunity to create the most incredibly imaginative stories you’ll ever hear, without stopping to reason out if their story could actually could happen!

This kind of learning doesn’t stop as soon as they learn that those wings and capes won’t allow them to fly. It just changes a bit! As preschoolers get older, they start to fine-tune their knowledge of the world. Their pretend play starts to look more like imitation instead of fantasy. Magical fairies and superheroes give way to waiters and doctors and daddies. Suddenly their imagination mirrors reality a little more as they “cook” you food, perform major surgery on you, or put all the baby dolls all in “time out” for misbehaving. As you watch their view of the world, you can see how they use this imaginative play to deal with their feelings, as well as show you how they view relationships. For example, those naughty baby dolls may be put in “time out” or scolded for something that looks suspiciously similar to an action that your child was corrected for in the recent past. By acting out these scenarios, they are learning to handle those tough feelings and discovering a little bit more how social relationships work, especially when they involve other children in their pretend play. In a childcare setting, you can see several children coming together to act out the roles they see in their everyday life. You’ll see them imitate playing house, with the “mom” and “dad” coming home from work, making dinner, correcting the children, and maybe even having a little argument. With some creative and imaginative twists, pretend play clearly demonstrates that your child observes far more than you ever realized!

Pretend play is an important step in developing problem-solving skills, as well as social skills for preschoolers. There is so much about the world that they are not able to yet grasp, but each day they are piecing things together a little bit at a time. As they work out what they know is possible, they “fill in the blanks” on what they are uncertain of, creating some of the most entertaining stories around! Taking it a step further and imitating the roles that they see around them they are learning about how relationships work and working out some of those big emotions in a safe and creative way. No matter if they are a superhero or a fairy, a doctor or a daddy, they are using their imagination to build strong brain connections to move them into the next stage of development.