If you’re the parent of a toddler or preschooler, you already know that silly jokes and make-believe play can bring plenty of joy to your busy days. But according to new research, joking and pretending can be much more than just fun and games.

In a project funded by the Economic and Social Resarch Council (ESRC), researchers at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom examined whether young children can understand the concepts of joking and pretending. They found that children as young as 15 months of age understand and appreciate these concepts. What’s more, they discovered that knowing how to joke and pretend can provide important life skills for kids as they grow.

Joking and pretending are associated with all kinds of benefits. When children engage in make-believe play and try on different roles, they can develop their creativity, solve problems, and learn about their world. When they learn to playfully and appropriately joke, they will be more likely to manage stress, make friends, and get along with others.

Interacting with young children through jokes and pretend play is important, but if you’re a busy parent, it can be tough to find the time. Yet researchers encourage parents to make time every day to put aside the serious stuff and enjoy being silly, playful, and imaginative with their young children.

Here’s how:

–Step away from the screen. Sure, there are plenty of playful children’s shows on television, but face-time with parents and caregivers always trumps staring passively at a screen – regardless of which colorful characters are attempting to entertain your little one.  

–Avoid gadget and gizmo overload. Buttons, buzzers and flying things can certainly capture your child’s attention. But if each of his toys requires batteries and lengthy instructions, it may be time to cut back on the high-tech things and introduce more high-imagination items. Electronic toys tend to elicit very specific types of play. For example, it’s a car that rides around a track. Or it’s a keyboard that plays familiar tunes. However, items like building blocks (and other open-ended play things) can become cars - and also keyboards! This way, your child gets to provide the story line and the sound effects.

–Slow down. One of the most important things you can do to increase play and pretend time is to avoid over-scheduling your days. Leave plenty of room for down-time. It’s easier to enjoy each other’s company and find time for fun when you’re not constantly running around. 

–Do the unexpected. Toddlers and preschoolers love playful surprises. Instead of eating typical dinner fare at night, serve breakfast for dinner. Skip around the house together instead of walking. Eat lunch outside. Make-up silly voices and have a conversation together.   

–Provide the props. One of the best ways to encourage pretend play is to offer plenty of items that may stimulate your child’s imagination. When your child is old enough to play dress-up, create a dress-up area and include various types of clothing and other child-safe household items. Stock up on age-appropriate art supplies and join your child in finger painting or drawing.

–Read your child’s cues. Sometimes, your little one will be in a playful, silly mood. Other times, not so much. Follow his lead and strike a balance that feels comfortable for both of you.

–Learn more. There are some great books and websites to provide playful inspiration. Here are some to get you started:

www.AllianceForChildhood.org

www.UltimateBlockParty.com

365 Activities You and Your Child with Love: Fun Ideas for Your Preschooler’s Growing Mind! By Roni Cohen Leiderman, Ph.D and Wendy Masi, Ph.D.

Let’s Play and Learn Together: Fill Your Baby’s Day with Creative Activities that are Super Fun and Enhance Development, By Roni Cohen Leiderman, Ph.D. and Wendy Masi, Ph.D.

Unplugged Play: No Batteries. No Plugs. Pure Fun. By Bobbi Conner

About the Author

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D.

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and speaker specializing in parenting and child development.

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