Leading clinical psychologist, Dr Martine Prunty shares why Pretend Play is vital to children’s wellbeing, plus how educators and parents can foster pretend play within their own classrooms and at home.

Why is Pretend Play important?

“Many people often think of play in the form of specific games such as kicking or throwing a ball, swinging, sliding or exploring, however, one form of play not classified as physical play is particularly important to a child’s cognitive and social development:

Pretend play

Pretend play involves acting out stories with opportunities to manipulate multiple perspectives so that learning can occur.

Small child learning through pretend play by stacking hexagonal prisms
Small child learning through pretend play by stacking hexagonal prisms

Research shows that imaginative play is a critical feature of a child’s cognitive and social development

Research shows that imaginative play is a critical feature of a child’s cognitive and social development, with children tending to develop this style of play from roughly the ages of 2.5 through to approximately 6-7.

It has illustrated clear benefits, such as language development and openness in children to other people’s different perspectives on a situation than their own. Additionally, through pretend play, children can develop their organisational skills, ability to integrate unrelated concepts and improve their creative thinking via practising the ability to conceptualise ideas.

Pretend play also provides a safe environment for children to express negative feelings via acting out scenarios that may be reflective of their own experiences 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 such things as reducing aggression, learning delayed gratification, manners and empathy.”

What opportunities do we have to increase this method of play?

“Families and educators who read stories together and explain concepts to children throughout their day, increase the awareness of the above skills for children.

The atmosphere at pre-school is conducive to engaging in pretend play via organised activities in the classroom as well as free play at break times. These environments enhance children’s curiosity and imaginative skills.

Imaginative play is a vital component to the normal development of a child, but it is also an opportunity for adults to learn from children. Sometimes they may be trying to tell us something, and if not, then pretend play is often a sign of their desire to explore the world and make sense of it.”

A question of literacy

As children get older and start school, they are exposed to learning-orientated pretend play in the classroom, for example, storytelling.

There have been studies that show that children who participate in this guided play method of learning, enhance their literacy skills. Pretend play provides children with an opportunity to develop their language skills via explanation of their actions. Children are often describing what they are doing, or asking and answering questions in roleplay scenarios. In order to help children further develop their skills in this area, they need to hear a greater number of words, regularly.

Children benefit from the assistance of an adult when playing because they are exposed to a wider variety of words (often unfamiliar) and they are able to extend their children’s ideas further. Books provide additional assistance because they illustrate what those words mean, so children learn a context within which certain phrases and descriptions are used. Books also allow for repetition when favourite stories can be read repeatedly, consolidating the learning of the language.

Two Children experiencing pretend play in a mock up kitchen
Two Children experiencing pretend play in a mock up kitchen

Dr Martine Prunty is a Clinical Psychologist in Sydney’s Inner West. She has a Doctorate of Clinical Psychology and a PhD in Psychology.

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