What is make-believe play?
Make-believe play refers to when children learn that something can stand for something else. "This is called representational thought or symbolic thought," says Dr. Joanne Baxter, an associate professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Calgary's Mount Royal University. For instance, a doll can stand for a baby, and a child will recreate an experience such as feeding the "baby" that they are familiar with. "As the child's ability to represent develops, the child does not need real objects and can engage in more make-believe or pretend play: pretend this straw is a spoon, pretend you are the dad, pretend that we have wings."
What are the benefits of make-believe play?
While make-believe may seem like simple child's play, it is actually fundamental to the development of language, intellectual and academic skills along with social and emotional development, says Baxter. We all played make-believe growing up; in fact, we all still do from time to time. "We use these skills as adults but may not think of them as make-believe. For example, rehearsing a presentation, walking yourself through a potentially frightening situation (such as [visiting] the dentist), solving a problem with someone at work," she says. Such critical abilities that we apply in our daily adult lives are rooted in the pretend play we engaged in as children.
Ultimately, make-believe helps kids to make sense of the world and to find ways of coping with scary or challenging experiences. Without such play, kids wouldn't develop the language and thinking skills they need to live successfully. It also encourages creativity and problem solving, and leaves kids open to possibility. Remember how great it felt to believe that anything was possible?
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How can parents encourage more pretend play?
Baxter makes six recommendations:
1. Talk, talk, talk. Name people, places, objects, actions—everything. "As children get more proficient in the use of language, adults sometimes forget to keep on labelling things such as feelings and physical states like tired or hungry. Talk about what you are doing, and what your child is doing," she says.
2. Provide a wide range of real-world, hands-on experiences. Children need to use all their senses and explore the world in as many ways as possible.
3. Give open-ended toys that can do more than one thing. Keep items like ticket stubs from a vacation or a visit to the zoo so the child can use them as a starting point in their play.
4. Read to your kids. Whereas movies and TV give all the information, a book allows the child to imagine what the places and characters may look like. "Having the child use their imagination to create these images and then represent them in drawings, coloring, and words will promote the development of make believe."
5. Let children lead. Instead of always structuring activities, let kids decide what they want to do. "It's okay for children to get bored sometimes; this may lead them to some creative ideas that you may not have thought of."
6. Participate. Be involved in your child's play as much as possible so you can provide assistance if needed. For example, offer a new idea or direction when play slows down, switch up activities, and help problem solve to resolve conflicts.
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