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Learning Bugs Loves Pretend Play: The incredible benefits of imaginative and pretend play

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What is pretend and imaginative play?

Pretend play can sometimes also be called be role or dramatic play as it’s essentially when children take on the idea of acting out a different role to themselves or playing out a scenario they have may some experience of.

Children may decide to play out roles and situations familiar to them such as real-world roles like being a parent and cooking in their play kitchen but equally they may play out fantasy characters and stories such as villains, heroes and pirates.

Examples of pretend and imaginative play include but are not limited to;

  • Playing with a dolly, imitating feeding, sleeping changing etc
  • Playing families in a dolls’ house
  • Playing in a play kitchen
  • Fixing something with tools
  • Checking cuddly toys as a doctor/vet

Pretend play can come in many forms and whilst sometimes it may look like a child is ‘just playing’ it’s so vital to the developmental learning process as children practise, learn and mimic from their experiences around them. They absord these experiences and make sense of them through their play so it should be something that it actively encouraged and supported from an early age.

Structure vs Unstructured

Pretend and imaginative play can take many forms as mentioned above; play can range from role playing and acting out scenarios to imaginatively playing with a small world set up. There is a difference in whether the play is something that has been structured and set out to allow for a certain outcome or if it’s unstructured and a child has developed their own play using what’s available to them without any pre-defined set up.

Structure: a pre-planned or pre-determined set up where the most likely outcomes are defined. So for example; a shop with pretend food placed on shelves and a till and possibly other items such as a trolley.

Unstructured: freedom to use what’s around and about to create a set-up or scenario. For example using sofa cushions to create a pirate ship or fort or using random items in a doctors/vet check up.

Pretend and imaginative play can take many forms as mentioned above; play can range from role playing and acting out scenarios to imaginatively playing with a small world set up. There is a difference in whether the play is something that has been structured and set out to allow for a certain outcome or if it’s unstructured and a child has developed their own play using what’s available to them without any pre-defined set up.

Structure: a pre-planned or pre-determined set up where the most likely outcomes are defined. So for example; a shop with pretend food placed on shelves and a till and possibly other items such as a trolley.

Unstructured: freedom to use what’s around and about to create a set-up or scenario. For example using sofa cushions to create a pirate ship or fort or using random items in a doctors/vet check up.

There’s no rule that says one is better than the other as children will benefit from both types of play experiences here and as a parent/guardian/educator we can help support them in doing both too.

All the benefits of pretend play

Social skills and self regulation: children (especially toddlers!) are known for often acting without thought and on impulse so pretend play can be a great way to practise and experiment with the social skills that come as part of self-regulation such as sharing, empathy for others over self and understanding relationship roles and dynamics. As part of their play they will have to problem solve and make decisions as well as practise negotiation and rule setting with other children they may be playing with.

Development of language: Pretend play is often an area where even shy children become more vocal and animated, being able to act out and role play in a safe environment encourages talking and communication. Even if children are non-verbal or not talking yet there is still much communication taking place through body language such as nodding and smiling and if children are talking then expressing wishes and outcomes about the play to one another is a great way to develop conversational skill. This is all in addition to taking on the role of or speaking as the part/person/animal in the role of the play which will require a whole different set of skills as children will be practising and reenacting experiences they may have heard as well as making up their own.

Emotional development: play for children is not only about being fun and helping them to learn it’s also about enabling them to process and make sense of what’s going on around them. Pretend play gives children the opportunity to act out things that they may struggle to talk about in other ways but because it’s done safely through play it’s their way of releasing any emotional tension they may have. Pretend play can also be a catalyst for developing empathy toward others, an understanding of sharing, turn-taking and negotiation as well as learning about roles, rules and discipline.

Supports wider learning opportunities: the potential to bring in elements of literacy and numeracy is huge in pretend play. A shop or restaurant set up can involve both with the writing and pricing of pretend menus and food items, both the server and customer can engage with both the written text and numbers as well as the spoken elements if they’re able to.

Empowerment and Independence: With both structured and un-structured dramatic play children will assign roles to themselves, others and the things or objects they are playing with, this gives them a massive sense of ownership and control over their own play and is naturally very empowering. Children may choose to take on a leading role or position of authority in their play such as a nurse, doctor or school-teacher or may revert to a caring nurturing role such as a Mummy or Daddy. They may even choose to become something out of this world such a super-hero or even a unicorn or a dragon, it’s their choice, it’s their play and letting them have choice can lead to greater independence in other areas of their play too.

How to encourage pretend play

Places to play: this doesn’t have to be anywhere different from your usual play area or space but think about using what’s in your home or setting to create opportunities for pretend and imaginative play that may be less structured than other set ups like a play kitchen for example. So a sheet draped over the back of the couch and propped up with a chair can become a den or a castle, or maybe even a doctors’ waiting room.

Props, Bits and Bobs: you don’t have to have ALL the play kits and all the play sets for imaginative and pretend play as so many toys can be repurposed for different things. Our Doctors kit is also a Vet kit and our Play Den is often a Princess Castle at the same time as being a Pirate Ship! And sometimes the best prop is a simple cardboard box! You can add stickers or drawings to this and make your cardboard box into anything your little one chooses!

Items like playskilks, loose parts and peg-dolls are brilliant for pretend play because they’re open ended and can become so many different things. A playsilk can become a cape, a bandage, part of an outfit, a curtain, a blanket, soup in a pot…the list could go on!

Of course dress up outfits, play kits, play kitchens, dolls houses, tool benches all have brilliant opportunities for pretend play too and because they’re familiar children are comfortable to play and experiment safely with different scenarios and maybe even outcomes…our play kitchen is often turned into a tool bench!

Get involved! You don’t always have to get involved as we believe children can learn so much from some time playing on their own or with their peers but what’s better than being brought a pretend cup of tea and a slice of toast from your toddler that they’ve prepped in their own kitchen!

Maybe you or a willing grandparent or family member will be a patient or a student in their role play, or perhaps you’ll be made to take on the role of a certain character in a small world play scenario, it’s great for children to see you involved and taking an interest in their play as it encourages the story and deepens their experience if they’re still able to be in charge.

It’s fun!

The biggest benefit to pretend play and probably the most important is that it’s fun! There’s so much joy that can come about from this sort of play and we’re sure it will never lose it’s play appeal!

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