Walk into a preschool classroom and you’re likely to find kids pretending to be someone, or something, else. You might find a pint-sized teacher leading a group of peers in a lesson, a pastry chef preparing to open a bakery, or a police officer keeping the peace. Imaginary play is one of the hallmarks of childhood, and it’s more than fun and games: Pretend play boasts important benefits when it comes to child development.

One study of preschoolers enrolled in daycare found a correlation between the amount and complexity of fantasy play and a child’s social competence with peers. A study of fourth-grade students indicates a relationship between fantasy play (specifically imaginary friends) and creativity. And a Pediatrics report addresses the many benefits of unstructured play, including conflict resolution skills, social skills, self-advocacy, confidence, and resilience.

The benefits of child-centered, imaginative play are seemingly endless. As Mr. Rogers said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.”

The busy pace of modern family life often means our children don’t have the time to get down to the business of play. Check out these reasons to press pause and build in more time for make-believe:

It builds empathy. Through the context of imaginary play, children try on different roles and view their worlds through a different lens. This expands their world-views and provides the opportunity to think about how others experience the world around them.

When kids engage in imaginary play with other kids, they have to slow down and listen to the ideas of the peers, consider their feelings about their role in the play scenario, and work together to make sure each player is having fun. This builds empathy among children.

It promotes mastery over fears and stressors. Kids today are growing up in a stressful world. From active shooter drills to scary world events on the news and radio, from family concerns to high-stakes testing, even the youngest learners are not completely protected from the stress around them. It’s common for young children to experience fears and feelings of worry related to a wide variety of issues, and they need a way to process and work through these big emotions.

Imaginary play is a great vehicle for giving kids the space to work through their fears and other difficult emotions. A child who fears the dark, for example, might take pretend camping trips in a play tent. A child who endures a lot of medical procedures might set up a hospital for stuffed animals and work through stress caused by frequent doctor visits. Through imaginary play, kids are able to work through and master their worries and stress and to learn how to regulate these complicated emotions. They also prepare for future events that trigger similar feelings.

Kids practice social interaction skills. Group play is all about working together toward a common goal: fun. When groups of kids engage in imaginary play they learn how to work through conflict, negotiate, delegate, self-advocate, listen and take turns.  

Even the youngest players understand that if the play isn’t fun for everyone involved, it will likely come to a halt. They learn to work together and care for each other so they can continue to have fun as a group.

Kids develop complex, higher order thinking skills. Imaginary play isn’t just about throwing on a funny hat and mom’s high heels and creating some kind of parody routine; it requires thought and planning. What might seem whimsical to the parent watching from afar is anything but to the kids involved in the play.

Pretend play involves advanced thinking strategies, communication, and social skills. Kids spend time planning the play theme, dividing up tasks, negotiating roles, considering perspectives, transferring knowledge from one situation to another (e.g. setting up a grocery store based on what they know from shopping with parents), balancing their own ideas with those of their peers, and developing an action plan. That’s a lot of learning!

Kids build connections. Whether your child invites you into the fun or plays with siblings or friends, engaging in imaginary play builds positive connections. Kids learn to tune into the emotions of others and build friendships and relationships. And this, in turn, helps protect them against stress and reminds kids that they have supportive people in their lives.

At some point, imaginary play will fade away as more structured play (sports and other activities) becomes the primary focus. Whenever possible, accept an invitation to play with your child. When we take the time to play and live in their worlds, we show our kids that we are there for them. The more parents support imaginary play in the home, the more kids engage in it and the longer they use it. Play isn’t just a thing kids do to pass the time; play is a way of life.

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