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Understanding Pretend Play

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Understanding Pretend Play

Have you built a fortress using curtains, blankets and empty cardboard boxes? Have you pretended that fallen leaves were dollar bills and flat stones were coins? Have you had a lightsaber combat with a friend using twigs and branches? If you answered “yes” to any of these, or if you have experienced something similar, then you have engaged in pretend play. “Pretend play”, which is also called “make believe play” and “imaginative play”, is a form of play that includes:

1. role playing where children assign to themselves and to their playmates roles to portray.


2. onject substitution which is when a child uses an object as something else; and


3. non-literal behavior where the child and their friends portray non-realistic scenarios.

How Pretend Play Impacts Child Development

According to the Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development, pretend play helps children develop their social and emotional skills, their language skills, and their problem-solving skills.

Social and emotional skills

When children play pretend, especially with other children, they learn how to cooperate and work with others. They also gain the confidence to express themselves and their ideas. In playing the role of another, whether it be another child or an adult, they learn to identify with the person. Thus, developing empathy. 

Language development

Children observe and copy adults. This applies not only to the actions and interactions they see, but with words also. Pretend play gives children the opportunity to use words that they would otherwise not use in real life. Also, playing with older kids whose language is more developed, is helpful for younger kids to learn words and context. 

Problem-solving skills

Whether it is during construction or dramatic play, playing pretend gives your children a safe space for them to discover what works and what doesn’t. In the process, children develop their problem solving skills.

Pretend play also helps a child’s physical development. Playing pretend superheroes or basketball players surely get kids in action, thus helping them develop their gross motor skills. Using modeling clay to form simple shapes engages the small muscles in their hands, thus developing fine motor skills.

3 Forms of Pretend Play to Explore

Exploratory Play


Exploratory play happens when a child engages plays with something out of inquiry or curiosity.


The duo who found daddy's cans of paint and decided to do a surprise paint job after seeing him paint the fence- are but little ones engaging in exploratory play. 


Children they don't always need toys to play. They can play with their clothes, their hands or any other body part, or just about anything that catches their attention and piques their curiosity. 


Also, as children are naturally curious, it is best to keep them guarded as soon as they start to crawl.

Constructive Play


Constructive play is when children uses materials to create something else.The group of little boys building a fort using empty cardboard boxes and blankets, and the little girl who assembled her drum set using buckets and bins - they are doing constructive play. 


Aside from engaging the little one's creativity, constructive play also helps younger kids develop their fine-motor and cognitive skills. Thus, this type of pretend play grows with the child in such a way that they are able to make more elaborate creations as they develop. 


For example, toddlers use wooden blocks as stacking toys. After a couple of years, the wooden blocks will be painted with different colors and they will have windows and doors doodled on them using Sharpies. At this point, your little ones are no longer just stacking blocks. They are creating skyscrapers and high-rise buildings. 


When playing with another child, with you or with a group of other kids, your little one will learn how to cooperate and work with others. Thus, constructive play also helps him build his social skills.

Dramatic Play


Role-playing is a form of dramatic play. In this type, children take on or assign each other roles that mimic real-life or make-believe settings. It allows children to replicate the world from their perspective.They are able to express how they perceive their interactions between other individuals in their environment, and even their interaction with these individuals. 


A child playing pretend classroom with her dolls and stuffed toys, and a group of children pretending as if they are guests and waiters at a diner are all engaging in dramatic play. Dramatic play is encouraged when a child has toys that look and feel real. Such as pretend play makeup, and dress-up toys. 


Observing how a child acts out a role while in play, how they treat their playmates, and even how they speak to their dolls gives you an idea of how they see the world they are in. 


Puppetry and fantasy play are also forms of dramatic play.

What to Look for in Pretend Play Toys

Any toy can be a pretend play toy. That’s the wonderful thing about how a child’s brain works. Anything can be a toy, and any toy can be anything they imagine it to be. 


However, in order for your child to get the best experience each time they are at play you need to make sure that their toys…

1. … helps you teach them good values. Pretend food toys help parents introduce healthy eating habits to their little ones by associating fruits and vegetables with fun play times. 


Pretend play makeup, on the other hand, helps little ones understand the importance of taking the time to take care of ones’ self so they are neat and presentable. 


 The big bonus is: mommy gets to keep her makeup intact! 

2. …puts their creativity in action. This include open-ended toys such as Playdoh, kinetic sand, magnetic puzzles, and blocks; and even dress-up items such as hats, mermaid tails and trinkets.


3. … supports physical activity. Excessive screen time is an issue that a lot of parents and child caretakers are trying to tackle these days.Toys and materials that encourage kids to head out are a must. 


Sports equipment like basketballs are, of course, a given. But do you remember how fun it was to look for bugs, observe insects and “forage”? 


Share this childhood experience with your little one by getting them outdoor exploration kits.  


4. … encourages them to socialize. Occupational pretend play toys allow children to play with each other and take on roles builds your children’s self-confidence and develops their communication skill.


5. … is age appropriate. “Play is the work of the child,” says Maria Montessori. 


Toys that are too simple for a child will not spark interest. While those that are too complicated will likely frustrate them. So it is best to provide toys that interest and empower your kids to do the “work” they need to do at their current level. 


Also, choosing age-appropriate toys keep your children safe. For instance, blocks for kids aged 6 and above come with smaller pieces to allow more intricate constructions. While the pieces of building blocks that are for toddlers are big not only to allow simple constructions but also to prevent choking. 


You know something good is on its way when you hear your child say “let’s pretend we’re…” As parents, teachers and caretakers, it is our duty to make sure that children have the materials, the toys, the ample time and space to make the good times happen. 


 Of course, we need to be part of these playtimes when the little ones want us too. You know what they say: “it doesn’t matter how big you think you are. When a child hands you their toy phone, you answer it!” 

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