Pretend play is when children use their imagination to make-believe they are a particular character, like a superhero, or doing something, like cooking. Pretend play often involves symbolic play, role-plays or fantasy and is part of a developmental sequence of stages of play.
In addition to being great fun, there are numerous benefits to pretend play.
For example, pretend play exercises a child’s imagination and creativity.
It often involves talking, either to oneself or another child, which improves language skills.
When pretend play involves playmates, it helps children develop social skills and helps them learn how to negotiate conflicts.
Pretend play also improves a child’s gross and fine motor skills because they move around and manipulate objects of various sizes and shapes.
- Acting like a superhero and saving people from a villain.
- Using a stethoscope to check the heart rate of a baby doll.
- Sipping and pouring imaginary tea with classmates.
- Lining-up all the classroom chairs in a row and pretending it’s a train.
- Several children using hand puppets to greet each other and share imaginary candy.
- When a child holds a wooden block next to their ear and acts like they’re talking to mom or dad.
- Acting like they have a magic force-field around them that blocks bullets.
- Jumping across the room like a frog and making “ribbit…ribbit” sounds.
- Two kids using straws as swords.
- Wearing an astronaut helmet and blasting-off into space.
A Detailed Example: Pretending to be Travel Agents
Kindergarten teachers are true masters of designing pretend play for their students. It takes a lot of preparation, but the results benefit the entire class…plus the kids love it.
As we can see in the above video, the children are pretending to be travel agents. The lesson supplements their lessons about Japan. One child pretends to be the customer, while the other two students pretend to be the agents.
The teacher has created worksheets and other materials for the kids to use, but they’re actually doing a lot of work.
In the beginning of the video, we see the kids being very cooperative. They confirm the reading of a sign, help each other spell, and identify a mistake.
One travel agent finds possible tourist destinations, while the other agent asks the customer questions about their travel plans. He then takes notes and keeps records.
At one point, one of the agents uses a toy phone to call the bus company and check on schedules to the bullet train to Mount Fuji. The customer is in luck, there are two seats still available.
During this short role-play we can see the kids exercising their imagination, working on their writing skills, and learning to interact with each other in a polite and cooperative manner.
Benefits of Pretend Play
Pretend play can take many forms. Sometimes it can involve using objects to represent something else, or role-playing an imaginary scene with other children. Because it involves so much cognitive processing, one may speculate that pretend play can improve a child’s self-regulation and inhibitory control.
This hypothesis was tested byKhomais et al. (2019).
They asked the mothers of 60 public school preschoolers in Makkah, Saudi Arabia to observe their child at home for one week.
The mothers were then given a questionnaire about their child’s play behavior. There were six subscales in the questionnaire. Two were Symbolic Actions and Tools and Interaction with Others.
The researchers then assessed each child’s level of self-regulation using a well-known method that involves children doing the opposite of what they are asked. For example, if the experimenter says “touch your head,” the child should touch their toes instead.
“The results showed that the only dimension that could significantly predict self-regulation score is “interaction with others”, while other dimensions were not statistically significant predictors” (p. 106).
2. Learning to Think from Other Perspectives
Pretend play has many physical, social, and cognitive benefits. It may also improve perspective-taking. Because it involves pretending to be other characters, it will cause a child to change their mindset and think like another person.
Pretend play has been used by educators to help children understand the effects of bullying, how to handle peer pressure, or the importance of various social issues.
It could also be used to help children understand the value of environmental conservation. For example, third-graders might participate in a role-play on animal habitats. There are several characters in the play: a mother tiger, two cubs, a small group of tourists, tour guide, hotel owner, and poacher.
The first scene involves the tourists and guide taking photos of a mother tiger and her cubs. They are enjoying the beauty of the natural world and later return to their hotel. At the hotel they pay for their room and the dinner they have later. The hotel owner shows how happy she is to have the business and uses the funds to pay for her child’s school tuition.
But, the next scene shows a poacher kidnapping the tiger family and selling them to different zoos. When the tourists return to the scene, they are surprised and disappointed. They decide to check-out of the hotel and return home. The hotel owner looks sad.
The play is run for one week and students play different roles each time. The teacher then guides a class discussion and thestudents take turns talking about what happened from each character’s perspective.
As many scholars have stated (Vygotsky, 2004) imaginary play informs the child about what is appropriate in real-life situations.
“This ability to transfer skills from the imaginary to the real world is supported by research….contributes to the development of an understanding of the social relations, thinking and emotional states of other people …” (Veraksa et al., 2019, p. 3).
This is one reason teachers like to use plays and role-plays in their classrooms. Kids learn better through play than trying to sit still long enough for their teacher to explain something.
In addition to teaching kids about how to handle peer pressure or develop prosocial behaviors, this kind of pretend play can also teach about the importance of wearing your seatbelt.
The play Crash depicts a scenario of two families taking a quick drive to the market. One family buckles-up while the other family does not.
Not long afterwards, the two cars crash. One family is seriously hurt and needs to go to the emergency room. The family that wore seatbelts are all okay.
When the play is finished, the teacher guides a class discussion on the importance of wearing seatbelts. Hopefully, students will then take the lesson learned in the play and apply it to their real lives.
Gender Differences in Pretend Play
Boys and girls are different. Although there are exceptions, there can be differences in the types of play they prefer (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998). Girls seem to have a natural preference for cooperative play while boys prefer rough-and-tumble activities.
Carlson and Taylor (2005) were interested in the differences between girls and boys in terms of their preferred imaginary companions during pretend play.
They observed 77 boys and 75 girls ages 4 and 5 years old during two 45-minute play sessions. The children were asked a series of questions after each session regarding if they had imaginary friends or were impersonating others.
The results were quite interesting. As the researchers explain, “…girls were more likely than boys to have imaginary companions, whereas boys were more likely than girls to impersonate characters. Furthermore, there was a significant sex difference in the form of imaginary companions, in which girls’ companions were more often invisible and boys’ were more often based on toys” (p. 111).
Pretend play helps children in so many ways: socially, linguistically, physically, and cognitively.
Teachers use pretend play in the form of role-plays and dramas to help children develop important social skills and exercise their imagination in ways that simply cannot be accomplished in a traditional lesson.
Carlson, S. M., & Taylor, M. (2005). Imaginary companions and impersonated characters: Sex differences in children’s fantasyplay. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 51, 93-118. http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/mpq.2005.0003
Khomais, S., Al-Khalidi, N., & Alotaibi, D. (2019). Dramatic Play in Relation to Self-Regulation in Preschool Age. Contemporary Issues in Education Research, 12(4), 103-112.
Pellegrini, A. D., & Smith, P. K. (1998). Physical activity play: The nature and
function of a neglected aspect of play. Child Development, 69, 577–610.
Müller, U., &Liben, L. S. (2015). The development of executive function. In R. M. Lerner, L. S. Liben, U. Mueller, R. M. Lerner, L. S. Liben& U. Mueller (Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, Cognitive Processes (pp. 571-613). Somerset, England: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
Veraksa, A., Gavrilova, M., Bukhalenkova, D., Almazova, O., Veraksa, N., & Colliver, Y. (2019). Does Batman ™ affect EF because he is benevolent or skillful? The effect of different pretend roles on preschoolers’ executive functions. Early Child Development and Care, 191(2). 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2019.1658091
Vygotsky, L. S.(1967).Play and Its Role in the Mental Development of the Child.Soviet Psychology,5(3),6-18. https://doi.org/0.2753/RPO1061-040505036
Vygotsky, L. S. (2004). Imagination and creativity in childhood. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 42(1), 7-97.