“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” –Mr. Rodgers
Children often pretend play about occupations that they find interesting. Police officers, veterinarians, princesses, firemen, and soldiers can all be found playing together in any nursery or playground. Pretend play is extremely important in the development of children.
From Bright Horizons Family Solutions, here are five ways that pretend play is important to child development:
- Children learn about themselves and the world.
Dramatic play experiences are some of the ways children learn about their likes and dislikes, their interests, and their abilities. They experiment with role playing and work to make sense out of what they’ve observed. Just watch children playing with dolls to see examples of this. Dolls often become versions of the child himself and are a safe way for children to express new ideas and feelings.
- Children work out confusing, scary, or new life issues.
Have you ever witnessed children pretending to visit the doctor? One child dutifully holds the mock stethoscope as the others line up for a check-up. More often than not someone gets ‘shots’. This is a child’s way of exploring an experience that is common and sometimes confusing or scary. Through these role plays, children become more comfortable and prepared for life events in a safe way.
- Children develop important complex social and higher order thinking skills.
Pretend play is much more than simple play activities; it requires advanced thinking strategies, communication, and social skills. Through pretend play, children learn to do things like negotiate, consider others’ perspectives, transfer knowledge from one situation to another, delay gratification, balance their own ideas with others, develop a plan and act on it, explore symbolism, express and listen to thoughts and ideas, assign tasks and roles, and synthesize different information and ideas. In this creative play description, we could just as easily be describing the skills needed to successfully manage a work project for an adult as describing children’s pretend play.
- Children cultivate social and emotional intelligence.
How we interact with others is key to our lifelong success and happiness. Knowing how to read social cues, recognize and regulate emotions, negotiate and take turns, and engage in a long-term activity that is mutually beneficial are no easy tasks. There is no substitute for creative and imaginative play when it comes to teaching and enhancing these abilities in children.
- Children synthesize knowledge and skills.
Because learning and child development doesn’t happen in discrete pockets of time or during isolated activities, children need opportunities to blend their skills and knowledge together. Pretend play is an ideal way to do this. Think of children playing ‘grocery’ store. They sort by attributes as they group similar foods in sections of the store, use math concepts to tabulate amounts as they determine prices and calculate grocery bills, use writing to communicate by making signs, experiment with shapes and weights as they organize the store, work collaboratively as they assign roles and play together, and much more. 
We are currently in the process of adopting our almost 4 year old granddaughter and have been raising her for the past two and a half years. I like to eavesdrop when she plays with her toys by herself. I hear all sorts of interesting conversations taking place. She often uses words and phrases I wasn’t aware she even knew. But I cringe when she repeats things we have said to her, hoping they haven’t damaged her psyche for life.
The point to all this seems to be if we want our children to develop healthy work and life skills, maybe we need to help them develop their brain by encouraging them to play. I think I’ll turn off the computer and the TV more often and encourage our granddaughter to play with her toys instead.
Rick Johnson is a sought-after speaker and bestselling author of 11 books on parenting and marriage. He is also the founder and director of Better Dads Ministries.