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Why Pretend Play is Just as Important as Learning

"It is a happy talent to know how to play" – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Children do know how to play. They are masters at it, and as a parent, you should encourage and support them in their pretend play activities.
They can be police officers, make-up artists, princesses, warriors, chefs, or all of these at once. While their imaginative play might seem a trifle to you, you should know that in their pretend play make-believe process, children learn how to solve problems, cooperate, and use their creative thinking. They discover themselves and the world around them, while dealing with their fears and insecurities as they play.
Pretend play is part of the more complex children developmental psychology. Studies have illustrated remarkable cognitive benefits, especially in the area of language development. 

What Does Research Say About Pretend Play

The make-believe play in early childhood allows for the expression of positive and negative feelings and the ability to merge emotion and cognition.
Various research associated with pretend play revolve around symbolism, organisation, divergent thinking and cognitive integration. Children engaged in make-believe play develop the ability to find novel ideas, stories and symbols. 

Learning and play are not incompatible. When kids pretend play, they take on different roles and learn to empathise with their peers. They develop their self-regulation abilities, including delay of gratification and politeness.
Research has even associated early imaginative play with increased creative performance later in life. (Russ, S.W., & Fiorelli, J.A. 2010)
Studies have also shown that parents should discuss early concepts of beauty, nature, friendship with their children. Telling bedtime stories fosters creativity and pretend play. Pretend play should also be part of the school curriculum. Even tolerated recess playtimes in school have proven to lead to enhanced curiosity and imagination in pupils. Some teachers are also using pretend play games to teach math or reading.
Probably, we should rid ourselves of the idea that play is the opposite of learning. Instead, we must consider joining our children and encouraging them to explore the limitless amount of ideas, emotions and perspectives at their disposal.
There is great power in play. Let's examine its many benefits and advantages.

The Benefits of Imaginative Play

When your kids pretend they're princesses or Spiderman, they do more than play simple games. They learn.

Pretend Play Enables Kids to Reflect Upon Themselves and the World

When children first get together with other children and decide they want to be Darth Vader, Spiderman or Princess Elsa, they express their first preferences and interests.

For instance, they first discover that they do not like to play queen Elsa. They want to be Olaf. Or maybe they find out that princess roles do not suit them. Instead, they enjoy being the villain.

Through imaginative play, children take up roles for the first time. Moreover, they instinctively learn that each one of us plays a role in their life.

Sometimes, they try to play "mother" and attempt to mimic your behaviour. This proves that they internalise and assimilate the social norms they see around them. Pretend play is their means of "trying out" these roles and seeing how they feel. So, yes, you might want to avoid colourful language around the children. They assimilate everything and then play them out.

Children like to experience a lot with role-playing, and you should guide them on this path. You could ask them how it made them feel to play "mother" and help them internalise the experience even more. Watch your children playing with their dolls, for instance. You will see how they project their identities on the dolls and see themselves as grown-ups taking care of the children. Or maybe they will give their teddy bear a checkup, make him tea or invite him to the party. Yes, they're adorable. However, more than that, they are learning.

Children re-create these social relationships through pretend play. This is their way of making sense of the world around them and internalising the basic social norms.

So, kids pretend play with their friends, siblings, parents or stuffed animals, dolls. In the dynamics of play, they learn about themselves and experiment with different social roles.

Imaginative play helps children Deal with their Fears

Sometimes, children might use pretend play to figure out personally challenging or demanding events. It's their way of coping with a family issue, the absence of a parent, maybe divorce etc.

So, pretend play has a lot of meaning for the little kids at the beginning of their path.

Many times, children play doctors. Or maybe they take care of other children who got "hurt". There is symbolism in this type of imaginative play. It is their way of touching on demanding life experiences they see around.

Children develop complex social thinking skills through play

Children do become more social through pretend play. In a pretend play game, they would negotiate or contemplate others' points of view.

Moreover, they would have to transfer knowledge from one game to another, express their feelings and listen to others' ideas and thoughts. Pretend play is also about delayed gratification.

 This ability to wait for a future better reward rather than enjoy a small, immediate one is associated with various positive outcomes in teenagehood and adult life. They include better stress coping mechanisms, social responsibility and a positive relationship with the people around. Children who can delay gratification can grow up to have greater academic skills, even a healthier weight.

In pretend play, children also learn to assign different roles or delegate tasks to their peers. They deal with a tremendous amount of information during a make-believe game. So, they have to learn how to synthesise this information and ideas, and turn them into manageable bits that they can express.

Conflict Resolution, Problem-Solving and Cooperation

Pretend play can lead to circumstances where children don't get what they want. For example, there can be only one king of the castle. Maybe your child won't get this role, as the other children decide to bestow it on another one of their peers.

This can be an unpleasant moment for your little one. In pretend play, children also get their first taste of disappointment. They are experimenting with many facets of social and emotional life. It is amazing how pretend-play mimics most of our adult life situations.

So, through imaginative play, children learn how to make their frustrations go away and find a resolution to their conflicts. Problem-solving thinking comes into play, and they might decide it's better to take turns. One of them can be king of the castle for 5 minutes. Then someone else takes his place.

Let your children play make-believe games so that they can see the world from outside their egocentric perspective. They need to understand other childrens' emotions as well. Maybe their friends are also feeling hurt for not being the king of the castle. So, the first seeds of negotiation appear. Maybe your kid will agree to play one type of game just because his friend agreed to play his favourite game the next time around.

These little talks, promises, dealings mirror a lot of our adult social activities. You should observe your children when they play these games and guide them towards cooperation and negotiation. Most important of all, you should try to support the dialogue.

 Pretend play is the first stepping stone towards emotional intelligence. How we interact with others and learn to read the social cues is key to lifelong happiness.

Pretend Play Helps People Combine Different Types of Skills and Knowledge

Learning and playing do not take place in separate compartments. They are not isolated, especially at a young age.

On the contrary, pretend play offers an excellent opportunity for children to combine their skills and knowledge. Let's assume they're taking the role of a grocery merchant. They'll use their math knowledge to count the types of foods. Moreover, they will use their analytical knowledge to index and catalogue the different types of items for sale. If they're old enough, they'll also have to make small calculations to give you the right change for your "groceries" purchase.

 Maybe they will be playing with other peers, so they'll have to assign a role for each "employee" of the grocery store. This is where they'll have to decide who does what, delegate responsibilities.

It is also about Creativity and Physical Development

Let's not forget about creativity. Sometimes, people invent the play scenarios themselves. They imagine situations that are impossible in real life, or they can think up scenarios that are not yet possible for them, like being a medic or a policeman.
The multitude of fantasy worlds your children can create is also mind-blowing. Do not belittle their creative "fireworks". Encourage them, join them in their play. You can help by borrowing them a few "props" for more engaging make-believe pretend play.

Here are some ideas of objects you might have around the house:

  • All sorts of "grown-ups" writing paper and instruments, like phone books or sticky notes, so they can hold a phone number agenda, leave messages or write "serious" shopping lists
  • Used plane tickets, coins, vacation photos, or all sorts of old cards so they could imagine and play all-manner of grown-up situations
  • Cardboard blocks, empty boxes or plastic crates that can help create a décor 
  • Old magazines, telephones, agendas, old laptops
  • Old backpacks, shoes or clothes that you can use to create new pretend-play costumes together
  • Kids' peel-off nail polish, non-toxic make-up, lip balms or a whole bundle of those
  • Stuffed animals and dolls
  • Maybe old sheets for the prince and princesses costumes

Yes, it looks time-consuming and sounds tiresome, especially for working parents. However, we recommend you find your time to supply your children with these "props" and encourage them to play together from time to time.

Spend time together creating new costumes, and let your children take the initiative. They will also develop their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

These are all key developmental skills for children that they can achieve through the wondrous magic of pretend play.

Pretend Play Ideas

Some of you might tend to tightly schedule your children's activities with a lot of learning undertakings. However, researchers point out that you should also give your child free-time to play.

Let them play at their will, only engage at times. However, watch them closely and encourage them when they feel frustrated.

Sometimes, an hour of dashing in the yard with their peers, galloping and whatnot, is just as developmentally fundamental as learning math.

It's true; they should also clean their room, do homework or practise their piano. Nevertheless, at a very young age, these should be secondary activities.

Some General Tips about Creative Play

Encourage your child to learn and develop through play. Use stories. You can start by recreating one of their favourite stories. During play, test your children's memory and ask what happens next. Or inquire them about their character's feelings. Storytelling is also a fundamental part of pretend play, and you should use it more.
Maybe your children have dozens of dolls and toys, and they get bored of them, go spend their time on an iPad. How about you encourage them to make new toys together. There are countless Youtube tutorials about making cute little action figures from paper. Try this activity together, and while you're at it, imagine a story for your characters. Your children will be drawn into a world of thorough detail that poses a lot of challenges to their hand-to-eye coordination and fine motor skills.
By imagining stories with the newly-created figures, children will develop their emotional intelligence. They will ascribe feelings and emotions to their characters, give them names and imagine a whole character from scratch.
Build some "prop boxes" together. Add old items from around the house that could become toys and props for your next make-believe play session. It's like having your own theatre props place where you can go to prepare your next creative experience.
So, are you prepared to follow your kid in the wondrous world of fantasy? Try these 7 pretend play ideas at home.

5 Pretend Play Ideas that Will Bring you Lots of Giggles and Fun

1. Write and Direct Movies
 Together Challenge your children to write their own movie scripts and promise to help them play them out. Film it, edit it and watch it together afterwards. There are plenty of easy-to-use apps for video animations and stop-motions. It doesn't have to be Oscar-worthy, as long as it is fun. The characters could be Lego pieces. Or, to make things even more challenging, you can also create your own characters from stuff around the house. Follow along with your child's story and ask him about the plot. Why is Iron Man not afraid? How does the Disney Prince save the princess? Encourage your critical thinking in your children as well.

2. Play Dress Up
Encourage your children to express their imagination and fashion sense through dress up games. Organise a tea party, and get ready for it.

Get your nails done with non-toxic peel-off nail polish, put your favourite lip balm on and dress for the party. Parents should join the children in fun. Studies show that this can influence the kids' happiness later in life.

3. Build a Fort or a Tent
Creating a fort is a universal activity all children love doing. Maybe they just don't know it yet. Help your children pretend they guard their castle against invaders, hiding their toy friends from enemy spies. Forts can be built with a card box, some pillows, and comfy blankets. Have lunch inside the fort, and tell stories at night under the lantern. Maybe this way you could convince them to eat their vegetables.

4. Indoor Olympics
Are you stuck indoors? Get a little exercise and involve your children as well for a session of indoor Olympics. You can line up some toys, make some running lines. Or you can create your own kind of Olympics sports. How about the sport of "who can put the most clothes on?" or "who can carry an egg in a spoon from one room to the other"? You'll get some physical activities in, and instil a sense of competition in your children. Create medals and rewards. Those will motivate them even more.

5. Kitchen Cooking

It could get messy, but you could have some fun time talking about nutrition and different kinds of foods. Teach your kids about healthy foods and their benefits.
You could try some pretend play cooking or even some authentic cooking in the kitchen. Have them help you with simple tasks and keep them energised and motivated with little healthy tricks.
However, the most important thing is to make time for your children. Find the time to craft a space helmet together from foil and a bowl. Make time to paint your nails together, discuss colour preferences and beauty concepts. Apart from its learning attributes, pretend play also creates memories that will last a lifetime.

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