Let’s Pretend

My 4-year-old Hannah’s favourite past-time these days is playing pretend. Her imagination is really exploding, and she loves to exercise it through role-playing. Sometimes we pretend to be cats, or mermaids, or babies. Sometimes we pretend to be at school or on a farm. Sometimes we even pretend that I am the mom and she is my child and I am feeding her lunch. It’s a stretch, I know, but we manage. And then we pretend that we speak Spanish and babble at each other incoherently.

I will be honest, sometimes the last thing I want to do is pretend to be a cat, yet again. My desire to play pretend is simply not as strong as my daughter’s. Especially in the midst of the day-to-day struggle to keep everyone clean, fed, and in one piece. Juggling a baby and a preschooler and trying to keep my own sanity is enough of a challenge as it is. Adding a complicated imagination game to the mix can feel like just one more thing to do.

In spite of my occasional reluctance to participate, I think that Hannah’s imagination games are fabulous. I have no background in child development, but here are some of the things that I’ve observed as a mom watching my preschooler play pretend:

1. They’re active games, not passive activities. When Hannah is pretending to be a kitten, she’s doing kitten things. She’s crawling around and leaping and mewing and playing with ‘cat toys’. She’s not just sitting and observing, watching TV or staring at a computer screen, she’s using her whole body and mind in her play.

2. Imaginative play helps Hannah to understand her world. When Hannah sees something that upsets or confuses her, it often comes out in her play. She will take on different roles or change outcomes from actual events. It’s as if she’s trying to examine a problem from all angles to better understand it.

3. Pretending helps me understand my daughter’s needs. I have a 7-month-old baby, and so I’m often telling Hannah to wait or that I can’t play because I’m attending to the baby’s needs. When she comes to me and says, “Pretend I’m just born,” I know she’s saying she needs me to baby her. To put her brother down and give her some undivided attention. Once I meet her need for comfort and contact, she quickly moves on to the next thing.

4. I hear all kinds of things about my daughter’s world. When Hannah is playing school I am more likely to hear actual details of her time at school than if I ask her point blank what goes on there. She repeats phrases that her teachers use, sings songs, and acts out things her friends said or did. By relating to her in this way I am better able to stay in tune with my child, and her interests and concerns.

5. Through pretend play I can communicate lessons more effectively. When I say something in my own voice, it’s more likely to come across as lecturing. Or at least Hannah is less likely to sit still and listen to me speak. But when I use a funny voice and adopt a character, she is engaged and interested. I can talk about things like how to play nicely or why washing your hands is important, and it’s still fun for everyone.

As an untrained observer, it seems like imaginative play is very important to my 4-year-old. In fact, I would go so far as to say it seems like one of the most important things she could be doing right now. As much as it thrills my heart to see her interested in letters and numbers, my uneducated belief is that spending her time playing is of equal or greater value than any ‘academic’ pursuit, at least right now.

As it turns out, I am not wrong. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a clinical report in 2007 outlining the importance of play. A brief quote from the report echoes my own sentiments:

Parents who have the opportunity to glimpse into their children’s world learn to communicate more effectively with their children and are given another setting to offer gentle, nurturing guidance…Quite simply, play offers parents a wonderful opportunity to engage fully with their children.

Other experts believe that play contributes to social development. By pretending to be someone else, children come to understand other people. By understanding others and their needs, they are better able to get along with them. As important as it is to teach our kids to share and play nicely, playing pretend may be even more effective in teaching compassion and empathy.

It’s serious business, this playing pretend. But it’s also fun and silly. In fact, it’s mostly fun and silly, and that’s really the best part. Playing is not something I have to push my child to do, she loves to do it. She’s having fun, so much fun that all of the benefits almost don’t matter. We’re making happy memories that will last a lifetime, long after our days of playing pretend are done.

So for today, even if I don’t feel like it, I will pretend to speak Spanish and use a silly voice and make the most of this time while it lasts.

I wrote this post as part of the PhD in Parenting Carnival of Play. Check out PhD in Parenting from April 1-15 for more posts about play.

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  1. Total agreement here. At three years old Eve had so many voices and characters in her head that I feared the tiniest bit for her sanity. A few of my favourite snippets include: “Oh Prince, we love you, we love you… and we respect you so much!”, and “I love you! I love YOU! I’m dying! I”m dying even more than you! Go bowl for dollars. I can’t bowl, I’m dying!” It makes me glad I haven’t bad-mothered all the creativity out of her.

  2. Even as I kid, I hated playing pretend. My sister always wanted to play “house” and I always got bored with it very quickly. It was extremely hard to get into pretend play when my oldest was a baby, but I tried my best, knowing it was important for her, if not for me. Thanks for reinforcing that suspicion!

  3. i adore my son’s imagination games, and yes they do allow me a glimpse into his world and a peek inside his head. quite often he would play out a recent ‘discipline’ moment with his toys and i would stand quietly out of sight learning from his explanations.

    but, i still cannot play comfortably with my child. i envy parents who can but on the other hand i commiserate with them that they seem to be constantly in demand by their offspring. i find it tedious (eeep, i said it!!) to play for longer than 10 minutes as his games are boring (eep said it again) and if i don’t get the housework, meal prep etc done then no one else will step in to do it.

    i wonder how much parents do have to play with their children? should parents play with their children? is playing with an adult a good thing for a child, or is it better they play with their peers as long as they get good quality attention from their parents too? ….. i have no idea, but although i don’t like playing with my son, i do ‘play’ alongside him except that my ‘play’ is usually something that i need to do, etc. i read an article recently (and then promptly forgot its source!) extolling communal living spaces ie. even if you have space, make sure that the family room is where everyone can do their activities without being shut away. that’s what’s working in our house and of course it’s in the kitchen!!

    OK i admit – i’m finding the reading stuff awesome now – he reads to me and i read to him, magazines, books, newspapers, brochures, subtitles, internet pages, ……

  4. I am so proud of you encouraging Hannah’s creativity. I’ve written about Jeffrey’s creativity too. It’s just amazing at what their mind can concoct. It’s great to keep feeding that tool so it doesn’t go away.

  5. Great post – it really speaks to me. We are HUGE on creative play here too. It is what we do most of the time . . . and the benefits seem very apparent to me.

    I was very stressed last fall when my (then) four year old was starting kindergarten and couldn’t read or write (at all) and didn’t even recognize the entire alphabet. I knew other kids starting school would be able to do this stuff, and that lots of parents teach them this before they go to kindergarten. But I kept insisting that my son had his whole life to be in school, that ages 0-4 were just for FUN. So we skipped the reading, writing and ‘rithmetic and rolled around on the carpet, built forts, chased Buzz Lightyear to the top of a mountain, and ran around yelling and being silly. And he is such a creative, imaginative little boy, and all his talents are spilling out now that he is in school. I love watching him create something out of nothing and explain an elaborate “made up” game to his younger brother, and then see them carry it out. It’s amazing.

    And while (as a previous commenter posted) yes, sometimes they do want me, and only me, all the time, things are getting better. Having three kids close in age means they have each other to play with as well – so it is some days taking some of the heat off of mommy. Those are the days I get to actually make dinner 🙂

    And your points are excellent (are you sure you haven’t studied child development? I *have* and your points are much better than I could have put together!!) and so true. I learn TONS from playing with the boys . . . learning things about school, about their fears, their joy, their hopes . . . and stuff they would never tell me if we were sitting down face to face “discussing” it.

  6. Re: #4 – indeed. I also learn such interesting things from the little dude when he’s just chatting, rather than when I’m questioning.

  7. hello, i found you through phd in parenting. so excited for her play carnival. your post is fantastic and it is always refreshing to hear that i am not the only one who struggles to get myself engaged in all the playing.

    but, like you said, i learn so much from the dialoging my three year old son does when he is playing. and i feel like they play times give me chance to speak to his fears and concerns.

  8. I love your observations! I’ve seen every one of them in my daughter’s pretend play. I love when she plays the mom and I’m the daughter. She keeps telling me not to push the friends when they come over! But, like Hannah, there are times when she wants to be the baby and have me cuddle her and “feed” her. I agree that it’s the perfect way to see what they are thinking and how they problem solve. Thanks for your insights.

  9. My daughter loved a box of dress up clothes. My middle daughter loved playing with pencil erasers shaped liked animals. My son pretends with little figures.

    All three loved a wooden puppet theater and a bag of assorted puppets. Some of the puppets were nicely made and some were Happy Meal toys. We always laughed at the play that involved a plastic dinosaur head, a tiny Santa Claus, and a monkey. Good family fun.

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  1. […] week I shared Hannah’s love of playing pretend. My 4-year-old has an incredible imagination, that’s for sure, and I love watching her use […]

  2. […] Here’s a great post from Amber on Stroel.com about her daughter and pretend play: […]

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