*First author is Rachel Hughes
“Let’s pretend to be…” is commonly heard from young children as they play and interact at school, daycare, or at home. Many adults encourage imagination and creativity but others are afraid that children will lose sight of the distinction between fantasy and reality. What is the truth?
It turns out that the fears are largely unfounded. Pretend play is a healthy part of every child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development and should not be feared by parents or educators.
There are two basic types of pretend play: fantasy play and sociodramatic play (Lindsey & Colwell, 2013).
Fantasy play usually begins around age 2 and peaks during the preschool years when children begin to interact with other children their own age and gain access to more toys and resources. Approximately 10-17% of all preschoolers’ play behavior can be grouped under this category. You can recognize this type of play by the child’s continuous verbalization of a state of pretend, meaning the child does not stay completely in character and feels the need to continue explaining what he or she is pretending to be or do.
In sociodramatic play, once the guidelines for the pretend storyline are set, the child is completely immersed in this story and does not typically emerge from character to restate that something is pretend. This usually takes the form of an extended social narrative and imitates storylines that the child has been exposed to: Superman, Sleeping Beauty, a dog.
Both types of pretend play are good for children’s development for many reasons.
- Social skills are fostered as children “engage in shared cooperative activities” (Rakoczy, 2006).
- Children develop an appreciation for relationships with others, because pretending with others, even imaginary friends, requires the child to consider other people when creating his or her story.
Pretend play lets kids initiate and sustain social relationships with peers. Kids form relationships when they say “Let’s pretend” and offer another child a role in the narrative (Lindsey & Colwell, 2013).
- Sociodramatic play in particular improves emotional competence (Lindsey & Colwell, 2013).1
- Both contribute to cognitive development. Both help kids acquire new information about the world around them. By taking on new personas, children learn about perspective taking and understanding emotions of different types of people (Lindsey & Colwell, 2013). If a child is playing teaparty, it is assumed the cups have tea in them (when really they are empty), but if a cup is knocked over, the “spilled” tea must be cleaned up (Harris & Kavanaugh, 1993). This logical reasoning and keeping a train of thought are very important in cognitive development.
Sociodramatic play fosters emotional regulatory skills because it involves highly emotional situations (for example, someone is sick or needs to be saved), letting children practice directing and negotiating action in such situations.
Children learn to effectively express which emotions they are actually feeling, therefore building positive emotional expressiveness. Children who engage in more sociodramatic play express more positive emotion (engagement, thoughtfulness, understanding), less negative emotion (selfishness, need for attention, anger) and score higher on tests of emotional regulation and emotional understanding (Lindsey & Colwell 2013). Overall, sociodramatic play can improve a child’s emotional development from a very young age and lead to healthier emotional relationships later in life.
Parents and educators can help children learn general information about the world through pretend play. Pretending a rock is a shark and having it eat leaves that symbolize fish will allow children to understand that sharks eat fish, even though they may have never seen a shark or a fish in person. Children can interpret this information as young as age 2 without explicit instructions or intentions (Sutherland & Friedman, 2012).
Plausible versus implausible play. Even at 3-5 years of age children can already filter out what contradicts previous knowledge about a subject and recognize that this new information is unrealistic (Sutherland & Friedman, 2013). Children are more likely to gather information from plausible pretend play (sociodramatic play) than fantastical pretend play because plausible play is imitation of plausible situations (playing house, playing doctor, etc). During implausible play, for example children pretending they can fly (fantasy play), less information is transferred into their assumptions about reality and less information is stored for later comparisons. If parents are still worried about inexperienced young children distinguishing between plausible and implausible reality, they can pretend in ways that show implausibility, like speaking in a humorous way (using silly voices, laughing a lot, saying “isn’t this silly?”). These can aid in a child’s differentiation between fantasy and reality and can make them feel safe during pretend play.
Imaginary companions are part of pretend play. Sometimes children have imaginary friends and adults might wonder whether it is good or not. It turns out that children who have imaginary companions show a higher level of creativity at a young age (Hoff, 2005).2 Additionally, adults who recall having an imaginary companion as a child outperform those who do not outperform those on creativity tests (Kidd, 2005).3
Parents and teachers have no reason to fear pretend play in young children. This type of play benefits all areas of a child’s development and gives a child tools for experiences later in life such as emotional regulation, creativity, and logical reasoning. Join in children’s pretend play to help guide their storyline, but allow children to expand their knowledge of the world around them by playing “make believe.”
 The Affective Social Competence scale (ASC) was used for measuring a child’s social adjustment. Its three indexes include: sending affective messages, receiving affective messages, and experiencing affect.
2Tests used included the Activity Questionnaire, designed to measure the correlation between
creative activities and having imaginary friends, and the Unusual Uses Test, which measures fluency of ideas (Hoff, 2005).
3 The Gough Creative Personality Scale was used for measurement, and adults who reported having imaginary companions as a child had a higher mean score.
Lindsey, E., & Colwell, M. (2013). Pretend and phyiscal play: links to preschoolers' affective social competence. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly , 59(3), 330-360. Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu.proxy.library.nd.edu/journals/merrill-palmer_quarterly/v059/59.3.lindsey.html
Sutherland, S., & Friedman , O. (2013). Just pretending can be really learning: children use pretend play as a source for acquiring generic knowledge. Developmental Psychology , 49(9), 1660-1668. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.library.nd.edu/ehost/detail?sid=1b73336b-6c51-4dc8-a408-8fcbfd153531@sessionmgr4004&vid=1&hid=4107&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ==
Rakoczy, H. (2006). Pretend play and the development of collective intentionality. Cognitive Systems Research, 7(2), 113-127. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com.proxy.library.nd.edu/science/article...
Hoff, E. (2005). Imaginary companions, creativity, and self-image in middle childhood. Creativity Research Journal, 17(2), 167-180. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.library.nd.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=ef60235a-e042-46aa-95ed-555addd364c9@sessionmgr4002&vid=2&hid=4201
Harris , P., & Kavanaugh , R. (1993). Young children's understanding of pretense. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 58(1), 1-107. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1166074?uid=3739840&uid=2134&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21103305932093
Kidd, E., Rogers P., & Rogers, C. (2010) The personality correlates of adults who had imaginary companions in childhood. Psychological Reports, 107(1), 163-172. Retrieved from http://www.amsciepub.com.proxy.library.nd.edu/doi/pdf/10.2466/02.04.10.PR0.107.4.163-172
*Rachel Hughes is a student at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, USA
BLOG SERIES ON PLAY
1 Happiness and Growth Through Play
2 Playing with Heart
3 Children May Be Playing, But Their Brains Are Working
4 Is Pretend Play Good For Kids?
5 Playing at School: More Important Than We Thought?
6 Does Too Much Screen Time Make Kids Sick?
7 Infant Couch Potatoes
8 What's Better: Indoor or Outdoor Play?
9 Why Play with a Child?