Pretend play is a form of voluntary activity in which young children take on imaginary roles while imitating and creating actions, gestures, and/or the talk of characters. We see children engage in pretend play when they (1) create an imaginary situation, (2) take on and act out roles, and (3) follow a set of rules determined by specific roles.
One of the most distinctive features of pretend play is that thought is separated from objects. During infancy, a child’s action is typically determined by the object she sees or uses. For example, when an infant plays with a toy cup, she or he might pretend to drink. If a toddler holds a doll, she might start patting the doll. Here, it is the object that directs the child’s thought and therefore the meaning of the behavior. During the preschool years, young children can start formulating ideas first, such as “I want to be a doctor,” or “You are a dog, I am a tooth fairy.” They then talk, gesture, or dress like the role they pretend to be. In such situations, action comes from ideas rather than from objects. Such change marks a significant cognitive advance, and is called the development of representational thinking.
Pretend play is found to help promote young children’s learning and development in areas such as creativity, language, self-regulation, problem solving, and negotiation skills, to name a few. In pretend play, for example, the child is in a constant mode of problem solving, taking multiple points of view. In the process, the child becomes less egocentric and develops flexibility in thinking. As another example, the child voluntarily submits to rules in pretend play, such as lying on a bed for a long time as a doctor’s patient or crawling on the floor and barking like a dog. Here, the child takes the path of least resistance and most self control, through which, the child practices self-regulation skills and activates her executive function. Lev Vygotsky, a renowned Russian psychologist once said, “In play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developed forms in a condensed form. In play it is as though the child were trying to jump above the head of his normal behavior” (Vygotsky, 1978).
Not all pretend play promotes development to the same extent however. Only when children engage in mature play does the activity facilitate children’s learning and growth to the greatest extent. According to Elena Bodrova (2011), mature pretend play has the following features:
- Child uses objects-substitutes that may bear little if any resemblance to the objects they symbolize (e.g., a stick as a horse, a box as a train car) and uses gestures to represent actions with real or imaginary objects (e.g., making a telephone call without anything in hand).
- Child takes on and sustains a specific role by consistently engaging in action, speech, and interactions that fit this particular character (e.g., a mother feeds the baby while talking to her).
- Child follows the rules associated with the pretend scenario in general (e.g., a school) and with a chosen character in particular (e.g., a teacher).
- Child integrates many themes in the play and spans the time of several days or even weeks (e.g., a town with store, hospital, restaurant, etc).
To foster mature play, adults play a critical role. Below are several suggestions that adults can do to support the development of young children’s mature play:
- give children sufficient, uninterrupted time for play;
- support novices’ play by suggesting ideas and talking to them before they start playing;
- ensure that props are multi-purpose;
- monitor the progress, avoiding being too intrusive but offering help when there is a need;
- act out scenarios during circle time to facilitate play during free time, and
- encourage children to use block structures in pretend play.