Many people often think of play in the form of specific games – tip, kicking or throwing a ball, swinging, sliding or exploring. However one form of play, not classified as physical play, is particularly important for a child’s cognitive and social development. This play is referred to as pretend play and it involves acting out stories with opportunities to manipulate multiple perspectives so that learning can occur.
Children tend to begin this style of play from about the ages of 2.5 through to around 6 or 7. Research has clearly demonstrated that imaginative play is a critical feature of a child’s cognitive and social development. It has illustrated clear benefits such as language development and the idea that other people may have a different perspective on a situation to their own. Additionally, children develop skills in organisation, integrating concepts that seem unrelated and they improve their creative ideas via practicing the ability to think up ideas and themes.
Pretend play also provides a safe environment for children to express negative feelings via acting out scenarios that may be reflective of their own experience at a particular time. Related to this, research suggests that pretend play provides an additional method for children to learn to regulate their emotions which includes things like reducing aggression, learning delayed gratification, being civil and learning empathy.
What opportunities do we have to increase this method of play?
Families who read stories together and explain concepts to children throughout their day (eg about nature or other social issues that arise) increase the awareness of the above skills for children. At pre-school the atmosphere is very conducive to engaging in pretend play, via organised activities in the room as well as free play at break times. These environments enhance children’s curiosity and imaginative skills.
As children get older and start school, they are exposed to learning-oriented pretend play in the classroom, for example using story telling and imagination to learn early maths concepts. There have been studies that show that children who participate in this guided play method of learning enhances their literacy skills.
Imaginative play is a vital component to the normal development of a child. But it is also an opportunity for us to learn from our children. Sometimes they may be trying to tell us something. And if not, then they are just exploring their world and trying to figure out how to make sense of it.