Preschoolers love to pretend! Whether he is being a daddy with a new baby, or an astronaut blasting into outer space, the imagination of a child enables him to go on amazing adventures. This type of play is fun for young children, and supports important development, too! How can parents help encourage pretend play?

The Importance of Pretend Play

“When preschoolers practice 'pretend play' they inevitably tap into magic,” says Sarah Havey Conklin, teacher at Steele Cooperative Preschool and mother of three. “This is my favorite time to watch both my students and my own children. It is as if we are allowed into their young minds for a brief time and I am always both humored and amazed at what I see. For example the characters that come out, the creative use of their toys, and most of all the language that is used.”

What do young children learn when they engage in pretend play?

  • Vocabulary Development and Communication Children often pretend to be the people and situations they know. When groups of children play together, they have a wide variety of experiences to share with one another. In playing together, children actually teach each other new vocabulary words as they talk and play together. They learn about communication as they discuss ideas play out different scenarios.
  • Planning and Problem Solving Children can come up with elaborate plans and solve complex problems as they play. Deciding who is going to play which part and then starting the adventure requires a great deal of planning. Children work together to solve the problems they encounter as they move along in the adventure.
  • Imagination and Creativity It doesn’t take much to spur children on to imaginative play. Children are naturally creative and can use the toys and items found around the house to substitute for most anything he might need. Allowing him the time and just a few props will allow your child to tap into his natural creativity and you will be amazed to see how far his imagination can take him.

Encouraging Pretend Play

“Creative play is the key to all learning, I find,” says Karey James, Drama Teacher at The Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. “If you allow a child to be creative and express themselves, you are spurring a deep-rooted curiosity in the world and a desire to learn all there is to learn!” A few simple props combined with the imagination of a child are sure to result in hours of creative play.  

Set the Stage

Children find the “material” for their pretend play from books, educational field trips and even everyday life. If your child shows interest in a particular topic, encourage him to focus his play around the topic. A trip to the aquarium might lead your child to go on an undersea adventure. Reading books about fish, diving or the ocean or watching themed movies will provide more information for your child to include in his “script”.

Provide Props

A few simple props will spur your little guy on to play imaginatively. A restaurant can be made with a table, some play food, a menu (which your child can create), an apron and some play money. You might be the first patron of his new restaurant, asking him what the specials are and how much money different items cost.

Here a few simple theme ideas:
  • Zoo. Plastic or stuffed animals, blocks for building cages, zookeeper hat or vest
  • Hospital. Prescription pad, doctor kit, a blanket and pillow, play food
  • Beauty Shop. Hair rollers, hair dryer, brushes and combs, barrettes and hair clips
  • School. Crayons and pencils, desk or table, alphabet, books, a bell
  • Travel/Airplane. Chairs, pillows and blankets, snacks for the plane, suitcases, maps, postcards

Simplify Your Schedule

The most important gift you can give your child is the gift of time. Be mindful of involving your child in so many activities, that there is no time for play. Children who are not given the time to play often cannot entertain themselves. Creativity and imagination need time to blossom, be sure to block some time off in your schedule for open-ended play.

Provide your child with some background information and a few simple props and give him time to unleash his creativity. Then sit back with a cup of coffee and delight in all that he comes up with. The creativity and imagination of children is magical: enjoy it!