Primrose Student playing make believe with a puppet, primrose friend Benjamin

Let’s Play Pretend: Make-Believe Is Fuel for Child Development

What should you do if you call your preschooler for dinner and he says he’s busy playing with his imaginary friend? 

Set another place at the table.  

Imaginative play, also called pretend play or “make-believe,” is a driver for early childhood brain development. It helps children make sense of the world, solve problems, learn to regulate their emotions, and develop their voices and opinions while bolstering their self-esteem.  

This is why the Primrose Friends puppets are a central part of the Balanced Learning® curriculum—to give children an imaginary, positive, safe world through which they can develop cognitive and social-emotional skills. Each of the 12 puppets has a unique identity and represents a character trait, such as generosity or cooperation.  

Engaging in make-believe is important in learning environments at school and at home, says Lynn Louise Wonders, an early childhood development and parenting expert. Wonders is a licensed professional counselor and a registered play therapist supervisor.  

“Children need to have the space and permission and encouragement for imaginary play. They need it for brain development,” she says. “Imaginary play is absolutely essential for children to figure out who they are in relationship to other people and experiences in the world.”  

The Many Ways Imaginative Play Benefits Children  

It’s hard to overstate the benefits of imaginative play for children. Research has linked pretend play to creativity, stronger problem-solving skills and the development of symbolic thought, when an object can stand in for something else (such as a banana representing a cell phone while playing “office”). Symbolic thought is necessary for children to learn to read and do basic math (words and numbers are symbols, after all).  

Imaginative play requires elevated thinking of children, says Dr. Lauren Starnes, vice president of early childhood education, research and development for Primrose Schools. A simple roleplaying game of “restaurant,” for example, can require a lot of thinking ahead, in-depth conversations and negotiations, goal setting and conflict resolution. Who’s going to be the cook? Who’s going to be the server? What should we use for food? What if our customer doesn’t like his pizza? 

Often, parents are surprised at the vocabulary children display during make-believe, Starnes says. “When else do you hear a 3-year-old say ‘menu’?” 

It also gives children a chance to play-act emotions and appropriate responses, important to the early development of empathy. 

“When you unpack imaginative play, it’s very complex,” Starnes says. “Frequently, there are elements of sadness or anger or frustration, and we see young children practice different responses to real-life scenarios.”  

Interestingly, the thinking inherent to imaginative play is exactly what educators try to revive in older students in high school and college, Starnes says. Think of a shoe, for example: If you show it to a young child and ask him or her to come up with things it could be (a flower pot, a toy car, a shovel, etc.), the child will come up with more than five times the suggestions an adult can, Starnes says. This ability to see many possibilities is called “divergent thinking.” 

“If we would encourage children from a young age to come up with new and creative solutions, like we do in Balanced Learning, we wouldn’t struggle to re-create that creative, divergent thinking that is so desired in teenagers and young adults,” Starnes says. “Young children already think like inventors and engineers.” 

How to Encourage Imaginative Play in Children  

Children can start to engage in imaginative play as early as age 2½, Wonders says. Parents can encourage this by giving children opportunities to make-believe and joining them in the fantasy.  

It’s helpful to provide items that children can use creatively, such as puppets, costumes or an empty cardboard box and markers. Sensory bins containing beans, lentils or sand can establish a universe for figurines of people, animals or vehicles.  

Ask children open-ended questions to promote imaginative thinking, Starnes says. For example, if you give your child empty toilet paper rolls to play with, don’t say, “I saved this so we could make a set of binoculars.” Instead, ask, “I saved this for you; what could it be?”  

“Don’t set limits where the child doesn’t see limits,” Starnes says.  

It’s important to join children in the pretend play, but let them guide the process, Wonders adds. So if your child says one morning that she’s not going to school, she’s going to the beach, ask her what she would do, see, smell and hear at the beach. And then gently bring her back to reality: “That sounds very fun. We will go to the beach another day. Today, we’re going to school.”  

Joining a child in imaginative play strengthens not only the child’s brain but also the parent-child bond, Wonders says.  

“When a parent is willing to join a child in the way the child views the world, the child feels affirmed by the parent. The child feels seen, heard and valued,” Wonders says.  

The result will be developmental gains that are anything but imaginary.  

For more on imaginative play, check out: 

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