To an adult, pretend play doesn’t seem to offer many educational opportunities to a young child. When compared to more academic-oriented activities, like reading or doing puzzles, it seems frivolous. However, pretend play offers many profoundly important lessons to young children upon which they will continue to develop and grow.
Whether your child is pretending to be a princess, to shop for groceries, or to take care of a doll, they are performing the developmentally necessary activity of role-playing. Role-playing is the best possible way for children to learn about social roles and scripts. They learn about what to say to the cashier at the store, what kinds of ways in which mothers care for their children, and how to speak with others and conduct a conversation. This kind of social awareness is critical for young children to experiment and play with at an early age.
One of the best opportunities that pretend play offers is the chance to learn and empathize with those from other cultures. Through playing with culturally diverse toys and dolls, children have a chance to be exposed to other cultural traditions, styles, and appearances. Especially for children who live in communities that don’t have much diversity, this kind of exposure is critical.
Pretend play can also be a great opportunity for children to see disabilities being normalized. Offering visual signs of disability to play with, such as giving a doll a wheelchair, can give children a chance to see through the eyes of those with disabilities and see what their life is like. This humanizing experience for those who are different is critical for building early empathy skills and preventing prejudice or fear from forming in a young child’s mind.
Emotional intelligence is built very early on in childhood development. One’s emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships and interactions. By engaging in pretend play, children negotiate scenarios, play-act through difficult emotions, and practice communicating about how they are feeling. By practicing being in these scenarios in a playful way, they slowly build the skills they need to deal with these high-stress situations in real life as well.
Whether they are carefully fitting the arms of a doll through the small sleeves of its coat or pushing a tiny grocery cart around their playroom, pretend play offers a lot of opportunities for physically developing activities. The fun and excitement of pretend play offers children a big incentive to try new physical challenges they might not otherwise try. The ways in which they can strengthen their fine motor skills in particular with delicate, detailed movements are a great way to build their physical development.
Because so much of pretend play is based around conversation, it is a gold mine of language development opportunities. Because of the creative nature of pretend play, it can include a much more novel vocabulary with more complicated conversational features than a child is likely to experience in their everyday conversations. By practicing these back-and-forth conversations with playmates, their language skills rapidly develop and strengthen.