Could pretend play be the answer for raising well rounded and school ready children?

Could pretend play be the answer for raising well rounded and school ready children?

Pretend play can often be undervalued but is potentially the most valuable type of play for raising well-rounded children. Let's unpack how and why.

“Look at me, I'm a fairy!"

Your child announces as they dance around the room with fabric over their heads while spinning around in circles. “Look at me, I’m a dog!” your child exclaims as they crawl around on all fours woofing and panting with their tongue out. It all seems a little pointless, but it is through this play that new ideas and understandings of the world are consolidated for a child. 

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.” Albert Einstein

The best thing about pretend play is it is something that neurotypical young children have down pat, as it usually shows up naturally and is fulfilling and enjoyable for the child. Unfortunately, the not so fun part about growing up is that we often forget how fun “pretend play” was as a kid and we also don't make the connection between this type of play and learning. Often, we are caught up trying to redirect them back to the "educational" play that is constantly marketed to us. Educational philosophers all over the world reiterate that within pretend play (imaginative play, role play - whatever you want to call it) there is opportunity for a variety of skills to come together which will continue to develop for years to come and support our child's overall well-being.

But what learning is pretend play promoting and how is it helping support early development, including school readiness?

“Imaginative play has the greatest impact on the development of key skills that are important for children’s success with peers.” (Dr. Catherine Neilsen-Hewett, a lecturer and researcher in child development.)

School readiness is not about being able to write your name and recite the alphabet or count to 20. Although through pretend play children can learn these things in meaningful and organic ways such as pretending to write out a menu and counting out coins to pay for their food at the restaurant they've created. This type of introduction to literacy and numeracy supports conceptual understanding rather than rote learning (memorising)

School readiness is about children being able to speak up confidently when they need help, share their ideas and be a valuable member of a community. It is as much, if not more, about their social and emotional development than it is about literacy and numeracy skills. And you guessed it, pretend play creates the perfect context for this development to happen 

Pretend play is an integral part of a child’s overall development, it is what makes childhood so special and is the core of many other developmental milestones to follow. It provides an outlet for them to express themselves and be who they want to be, while also making sense of the world around them. Being free to play in this way builds their self-confidence as well as their communication skills making entering school settings easier.

Children learn about the social world and how it works by "playing it out". It is through this informal, child led play that children can practice social interactions without the pressure of getting it right. For example, social skills:

  • Perspective taking (empathy) and shared joy 
  • Taking turns, following and contributing to others' ideas
  • Resilience, impulse control and self-awareness as they navigate different roles
  • Negotiation skills, teamwork and active listening skills 

Through imaginative play your child is building an understanding about the real and made-up world. Children usually have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and real life until around 7 or 8 years old, that is why bedtime fears may show up. However, imaginative play helps the brain work through the process of categorising real world from imaginative worlds. This understanding helps ease anxieties around school life. 

Pretend play is holistic, supporting more than just social skills and understandings of the world. It also supports other skills for success at school:

  • Regulation, being free to be the narrator of the play, provides control, freedom and autonomy to a child who will be required to follow lots of direction at school. Pretend play is an outlet to regulate enough to cope with the routine that school often requires
  • Physical skills, using their arms and legs to fly like a bird, climbing on the furniture because the ground is “lava” all opportunities to practice their hand eye, spatial awareness, balance, and coordination skills.
  • Imagination and creative skills are nurtured as this type of play encourages the brain to come up with new ideas and representations
  • Expands their language skills by exploring different characters and voices, receptive language and expressive vocabulary 
  • Cognitive skills like comprehension and conversing, Problem solving and negotiation

Adults and educators can support children by following their lead, allowing space and time in everyday timetables to do "nothing", that means not overly scheduling children. They can provide a range of objects and open-ended items that can be used for pretend play and join in the fun where necessary. Lastly, repeat repeat repeat! I know how tedious it can be, my daughter has spent half her life this year being either a dog or a dinosaur. 

What do you need?

Never underestimate the power of the cardboard box and the “safe stuff” from the utensil draw or pots and pan cupboard. However, if looking for some things a little more permanent and durable these are some of our top picks for a space that encourages pretend play: 

Open spaces that have nooks and crannies or places or materials to make barricades work really well as children love to make or use enclosures as a prop in the play.

Our final thoughts

There are many ways we can support pretend play with children, whether it is purposeful planned experiences, ideas that come up throughout the day or simply provoking an idea with simple objects, a story or a full-blown set up if you feel inspired to. Or you can do nothing but provide a gap in the schedule and your enthusiasm to allow for it. 

Although there are many wonderful resources that can be purchased some of the best play happens with an empty container and space to imagine. Whether you are joining in the play or have the wonderful role of the spectator, try to enjoy these moments and believe that this is where the true learning lies. 

Written by Elise Disher (M.Ed) and Jem F (Early childhood Trainer & Assessor)

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.