The Power of Pretend Play

By Michelle Salcedo, The Sunshine House Chief Academic Officer 

Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, while imagination encircles the world.” At the end of this month, many children (and some adults) will let their imaginations soar as they don costumes and enter into the world of make-believe.

Many people look on pretend as mere child’s play. What they may not know is that children’s pretend play is good for more than collecting candy on Halloween. In fact, it is one of the most important of early childhood pastimes. Research tells us that there are numerous benefits of this type of activity. In this article, we will examine three critical understandings that children develop in pretend play.

Two of the foundational conceptions that children build through pretend play relate to literacy. The first is vocabulary development. Repeatedly, studies have shown that children with a larger vocabulary are more successful in literacy learning. Oral language is the foundation for the reading and writing that children will learn. However, it is not enough to tell children new words and expect that they will retain them. They have to hear them and be able to use them in natural ways.

During pretend play, children use vocabulary that they would never use going about their normal routines. When a child is a doctor, a firefighter, or a villain, she has the opportunity to solidify a grasp of words in a way that supports true vocabulary development. And, the more words a child can understand and use at Kindergarten entry, the better she is likely to do in her studies.

The foundational concept of literacy is symbolism; the idea that one object can stand for another. Before a child can understand that a letter can represent a particular sound and that a written word can stand in for a spoken thought or mental idea, he must build a foundational understanding of symbolism. When a shoe becomes a phone or a box serves as a rocket ship, he is building this understanding of symbolism.

Another benefit of pretend play falls in the social/emotional domain of learning. During pretend play, a child takes on different roles. Today “I am a police officer,” tomorrow “I am a cat.” Each of these characters requires a child to behave in different ways; to supplant one’s own emotions to become someone else. The ability to self-regulate and control one’s behavior is key to academic success. Many studies have shown that the dispositions and social-emotional skills a child brings into Kindergarten are more important to learning than anything else is.

Albert Einstein was right, imagination is so very important. There is great power in pretend play, not the least of which is entering into the joy of an imaginative world. When we limit children to data and facts, we limit them to the world of what is known. When we delve into a world of imagination with them, we open up the whole world of what could be. So, this Halloween, when your child puts on a costume and roars like a lion, or punches the air like a superhero, know that while the candy they collect might not be great for their bodies, the experiences they are having are expanding their brains.