Make-believe play: A fantastic life skill

From playing doctor to holding tea parties, find out how your child's development can benefit from make-believe play.

By Colleen Seto

Make-believe play: A fantastic life skill
Children often use make-believe or pretend play to create fantasy worlds full of whimsy and imagination. And adults often expect that children will grow out of these flights of fancy. But, it's becoming clear that such make-believe or symbolic play marks the beginning of language and cognitive development, processes that don't necessarily come to an end. Make-believe helps kids to understand reality, especially things they don't directly experience, such as events that happen far away or in the past.

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?

Page 1 of 2 -- Find out how you can encourage your kids to play pretend on page 2

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