The benefits of pretend play

My toddler has been subjecting Morris the monkey to eat play dough “sweet potatoes,” complete with a bib that he insists the poor monkey wear. He will also tear the play dough into pieces, just like how his mom and dad dice or mash his food for him. And of course Morris’ meal isn’t complete without a cup of milk and water to wash all that play— er, sweet potato down.

With his imagination chugging along, my toddler has entered the world of pretend play, and I couldn’t be happier.

With pretend play, kids are able to act out and therefore better understand events that happen in their lives. For instance, my toddler has since been pretending that it’s time to go to Morris’ house. “What are you going to do at Morris’ house?” I asked him.

“Eat snacks,” he promptly responded. That he continued to act out a situation similar to the morning routines we have of him going to my aunt’s house—with snacks and everything—isn’t too much of a coincidence: he may be acting out a common occurrence in his life and is perhaps starting to grasp why he goes there most days instead of staying at home.

Pretend play also allows kids to regain some of the control that often feels lost in the World of Big Adults. The fact that my toddler can decide what Morris eats and how much, as well as spoon-feeds and offers Morris his cup of water helps him feel like the adult in their play. Now, as the “bigger” person, he has the say on all matters.

On a similar note, pretend play can help kids in situations where they feel particularly vulnerable and emotional. When my toddler had to visit the doctor for a checkup, he was able to switch roles and assume the character of the doctor on his “patients” to ease with the often uncomfortable feelings of being probed and examined, however well-meaning and important the reason. Or perhaps a child going through the difficult transition of moving to a new home will pretend to pack up his belongings to bring it to his new house, a.k.a. the walk-in closet.

At the root of pretend play is the robust imagination that kids come very well-equipped with. For my toddler, his desk has morphed into a rocket, apparently the same one that the bear from one of his favorite books Mooncake takes to zoom to the moon. Encouraging pretend play boosts and reinforces their imaginations, so much so that a desk converts to a rocket that zooms, a playground into a house, or Legos into pasta (apparently the large green piece is lasagna).

And just a few minutes ago, as my toddler protested against taking his nap, did pretend play come in handy. As he sat crying on my lap with Morris in tow, I asked him, “What do you think Morris wants to do right now?” And he responded, “Play in the living room.” We then held a conversation with Morris, with me explaining how sad Morris must feel that he can’t keep playing in the living room, but that resting makes him stronger. Better yet, once the nap is done, both Morris and LO can resume their game.

My toddler sat listening to me explaining why “Morris” had to nap and only then calmed down enough to agree that maybe a nap will be okay, especially since Morris gets to play right after. He was able to channel whatever frustrating emotions he felt in a play scenario and share the burden with his fellow toys.

I’m excited to witness my toddler begin to develop pretend play and channel his emotions and strengthen his imagination. Plus, it’s just so darn cute watching him “talk” to his animals.

How has pretend play helped your kids? How do you encourage pretend play?

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13 thoughts on “The benefits of pretend play

  1. I think that pretend play is one of the best ways for children to learn and am glad that you are joining him and helping him learn. I am finding that some children who use lots of technology don’t know how to really pretend play. I am not sure why, but just an observation. LO is only six months, but we’ll get to it soon enough and I just can’t wait! I love that part of parenting: — interacting with your child and watching him grow.

  2. How wonderful for you to witness LO’s pretend play taking place. I am really looking forward to Oster pretending too. Right now, he’s enjoying wrestling with his stuffed toys, running around the house with his “shopping cart” and playing with every-size ball in the house.

    Watching a toddler really think about what he/she is going to do to create scenarios is such a pleasurable experience. You get to witness them use their critical thinking skills and, depending on the situation, problem-solving skills.

    I know I keep saying I’m treasuring every moment with Oster. I truly am. I really don’t want him to grow up too fast. But I can’t wait for him to start play pretending.

  3. I can’t wait till my 18 month old starts to get more in to pretend play, although I often think she has an imaginary friend. Usually I can catch her pointing to something and turning and talking to someone who isn’t actually there. One time she kept poking her head out of my bedroom door and having a conversation in baby language to who ever she thought was in the kitchen. 🙂 it was too cute and I am excited to see what she comes up with next.

  4. Ally loves to have entire discussions. I’ll hear her reprimanding her toys (often as another ‘parent’ toy) and then she explains why the behaviour is inappropriate. It makes me feel like I’m doing a good job with her discipline if she’s not screaming at her toys or throwing them across the room as discipline, hahaha.
    This also (subconciously, I didn’t realize it until just now) prompted me to include Ally on working on an appropriate response to her whining. Hmmm…must…post….now….

  5. Our daughter spends much of her playtime in pretend play. Currently one of her favorites is to pretend we’re all animals. I’ll be mommy bunny and my husband is daddy bunny and she is (her name) bunny. She also likes to pretend its bedtime and tuck us into bed. And Mommy and Daddy certainly don’t mind a game that allows us to lay down. 🙂

  6. What a great experience. I cannot wait to watch Livi use her imagination and I am curious to see what she will choose to act out.
    Great idea to use your LO’s pretend play to calm him and explain something. It is so much easier for them to relate this way.

  7. That’s so sweet! I love watching my daughter pretend play. She’s really into dolls and feeding them. We bought a few doll bottles and Melissa and Doug felt food. So she will feed any doll.
    Dress up has become a new thing, too. She loves necklaces and tutus.

  8. Eli has been getting into pretend play lately, too. I love it! He loves to pretend that we are going night-night, he “feeds” his dinosaur toys and makes them talk to each other. It is nice to use those things to aid him. “Can you eat the apple just like T-Rex did?”

  9. Pretend play comes in handy for us at nap time too. If Simon begins to get upset when I tell him it is time to stop playing and take a nap, I will suggest that the toys need naps too. We have made beds for little people out of legos, put the entire zoo to rest on beds made of building blocks, and tucked dolls and stuffed animals in with a blanket and pillow in Simon;s reading corner. Putting the toys to bed makes him turn his attitude right around and get excited for his own pre-nap routine. I believe it also reassures him that his toys aren;t going anywhere and will be waiting safely for him.

  10. It’s so fun to see my two year old’s mind blossom into the realm of pretend play. He sometimes climbs up and plays “baby Daniel” and I rock him and pretend to give him a bottle of milk. I think this has helped with the transition of becoming a big brother because he can choose to have his big boy role or get a little extra attention from mom as a baby. Now if I could just stop getting him to stop putting items in his mouth when he’s pretending to eat them…

  11. This post is helping me yet again. LO has been resisting his bath time, perhaps because he doesn’t want to end the day and go to sleep. I’ve been getting frustrated with him but realized that I wasn’t making bath time all that fun compared to what he was doing.

    Tonight I think I’ll find a way to pretend play with his toys taking a bath, like him giving his toys a bath and drying them up.

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