Ages 0-5: Let’s Pretend

Cindy Tatum of Holly Springs has witnessed curtain rods turning into fishing poles, the living room floor transforming into a coral reef, imaginary friends visiting the time-out chair and a superhero flying around her kitchen, all courtesy of her 3 ½-year-old daughter, Charlotte. While this creativity requires a bundle of energy, it is also a source of wonder.

“She is constantly pretending to be someone else and have anyone in the room role play with her,” Tatum says about her daughter. While Tatum appreciates Charlotte’s energy and creativity, according to experts, Charlotte’s imaginative play is doing more than just soaking up excess kid energy.

Pretend Play Encourages Development

According to Joseph Sparling, Ph.D., an expert on curriculum for young children at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute in Chapel Hill, “Make-believe is an activity of the mind. It helps young children stretch and think in ways that they wouldn’t if they had to do everything literally.” In addition, pretend play “allows them to rehearse the future and experiment with roles and possibilities. It allows the child to go beyond his actual experience.”

Sparling points out that a child cannot drive a bus or be a mommy or a daddy, but through make-believe a child can “try on” and enjoy these roles. While much of children’s play involves “concrete operations,” such as learning about gravity by stacking blocks, make-believe “allows a child to transcend that, to go beyond the objects in front of him,” Sparling says.

Make-believe also creates a framework for kids to develop mental skills they will need later in life. “Pretend play is critical to the way a child develops basic cognitive and language skills,” says Collette Meador, a family support specialist for Wake County Smart Start, a public-private initiative that focuses on young children’s health and school readiness.

She explains: “If you think about language, letters and words are simply symbols. During pretend or make-believe play, children use symbols or props for representation. Encouraging children to ‘think outside the box’ and to use props positions them to begin to understand letters and words.”

Other necessary skill development includes the ability to understand feelings and events that may be beyond a child’s vocabulary and experience. Meador explains that children may use objects such as dolls or trucks to accomplish this.

“As an example, often parents and early care and education providers observe children ‘parent’ dolls or animals,” she says. “Children will often speak to the object in the same manner that his or her parent spoke to him in a previous interaction.”

Pretend play offers children the opportunity to become more imaginative in ways that help problem-solving. As Sparling explains: “Creativity and pretend allow a child to practice mental flexibility. If you can only think of one solution to a problem, you won’t be nearly as resourceful and able to solve problems as someone who can think of three solutions and pick the best. Mental fluency, the ability to brainstorm, this is something that kids don’t do off the bat but that pretend can bring about.”

Additional skills are practiced when a child includes other children in these interactions. “Regularly, children must negotiate with their play partners in order to engage in pretend play,” Meador says. “Together they must decide what kind of activity or event they are going create.”

When a child engages in make-believe play in a group, he is able to try out ideas with his friends, Sparling adds.

Follow the Child’s Lead

Experts encourage parents to get involved with pretend play while letting the child direct the make-believe tasks. Acknowledge the child and be curious; ask questions to stimulate the child’s thinking in the direction the child is already heading.

This also is a time to be complimentary and not judge the nature of the play. For example, even if you hope your child becomes a teacher, encourage him or her if the play involves pretending to be a bus driver or a princess or a police officer.

“What children want more than anything else is to be recognized and have what they’re doing acknowledged,” Sparling says.

Support Further Exploration

Parents also can introduce objects that allow the child to more fully engage without being too literal. “If you do provide materials or props to enhance your child’s play, those materials or toys should be open-ended enough to allow for creativity,” Meador says.

Additional resource materials or experiences allow a child to explore aspects of the make-believe theme. If a child is intrigued by firefighters, for example, provide a book about firefighting or visit a fire station. Exploring a child’s fantasy world can create a more complex opportunity for the child’s imagination by adding new sights, sounds and vocabulary.

While books and field trips are good ways to expand a child’s experience, the experts are less enthusiastic about television. Meador says, “It is my personal opinion that TV does not contribute to a child’s ability to engage in pretend play.”

“Unfortunately, television is a much more literal environment. You don’t need to use your imagination as much as books,” Sparling adds. “Television lays the whole thing out there so it doesn’t stimulate this area [of development] as much as pretend play and books.”

As for Charlotte, Tatum confirms, “That girl is so funny and her imagination is on fire!” And with a blazing imagination, language development, brainstorming, proficiency and interpersonal skills will follow.

Robin Whitsell is a writer who lives in Chapel Hill with her husband and three daughters. She can be reached through