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Why Make-Believe Play Is So Vital to Early Childhood Development

The value of make-believe play for your children cannot be understated. Here’s how it helps your child develop in the most important years of their life.

Early childhood is a time of rapid development for kids, from physical growth to brain development. By age 5, a child’s brain reaches 90% of its adult size.

That period of rapid physical brain growth goes along with cognitive development. A child’s brain creates over 1 million new neural connections per second in the first few years.

Make-believe play can support those connections and help your child’s overall development in the early years. Pretending to be someone or something else can support physical, cognitive, and emotional development.

On top of all the development it supports, pretend play is simply fun for kids. It’s something most kids love to do, so you can support your child’s development without forcing boring learning activities.

Keep reading to learn specific ways that pretend play supports development in the early childhood years. 

Social Interactions

Kids who play pretend in a group grow their social interactions and learn how to deal with one another. 

They learn that how they treat one another impacts how others treat them back.

It encourages cooperation and helps kids understand that being selfish isn’t well-received by peers. Kids learn to take turns, work together to do something, and listen to each other’s ideas.

They can test out different social roles when they choose who they want to be. This gives kids a greater appreciation for how other people feel and act.

Make-believe play also helps your child become more independent. Kids learn to make decisions for themselves and test out different things in a safe environment. Your child might feel more confident as part of dramatic play.

Processing the World

Playing make-believe lets kids interact with different scenarios and situations in the community and the world as a whole. Kids can practice the skills they need in the real world. They also start building connections and gain a better understanding of those different situations. 

A firehouse playhouse lets kids explore the idea of community helpers from the safety of the backyard. A restaurant setup in your kitchen teaches young kids how to order, use table manners, and act politely at a real restaurant.

It can also help kids process unknown or scary situations. If a child is nervous about going to the dentist or getting shots at the doctor’s office, acting out the scenario can ease those worries and help your child get out those feelings. Pretend play can help kids process difficult life experiences, such as the loss of a family member, a divorce, or someone who is sick.

Dramatic play helps kids develop new understanding and connect what they learn to things they already know. A child who’s never been on a plane but has seen one flying overhead can explore the idea of flying while pretending to be at the airport.

Problem Solving

Pretend play gives kids the chance to be in charge. They make decisions about who plays each role and how that looks. They come up with their own set of rules and guidelines for how they’re going to play and what materials they’re using.

Sometimes that creates conflict between the kids, which can be a good thing. Kids learn to work through their disagreements when they want to play differently. They may develop negotiation skills by giving in to some of their playmates’ demands in exchange for getting their way on other things.

Make believe play may also present tricky situations that kids have to solve. They may want to pretend they’re construction workers but don’t have any construction props. They can get creative to solve that problem.

Motor Skills Development

Imaginative play keeps kids active, which helps develop motor skills. They develop both gross motor skills and fine motor skills.

Gross motor skills are the larger movements kids make with arms, legs, or their whole body. That includes actions such as jumping, running, or skipping. A child pretending to march in a band or hopping like a bunny is working on gross motor skills. 

Fine motor skills are the smaller movements kids make, often with their hands, such as picking up a toy or transferring something from one hand to the other. Holding a spoon to stir pretend food is an example of fine motor skill development during dramatic play. Picking up coins while playing store or putting clothes on a doll are other examples.

Empathy and Different Perspectives

A child’s empathy develops over time and at different rates depending on experiences. Kids learn how to care about the feelings of others through nurturing, positive relationships with others. Modeling, stories, and play can help develop empathy in kids.

A make-believe game puts your child in someone else’s position, which can improve empathy. Your child might not normally think about what it feels like to a parent, teacher, or baby.

Playing one of those roles forces your child to think about things from a different perspective. Your child might realize being a parent can be frustrating when another child whines, cries, or disobeys while playing pretend.

Regular pretend play helps strengthen empathy even more. That can translate into better interactions during real life.

Language Development

Dramatic play is full of talking, singing, and other verbalization. Young kids may not make perfect sense, but chattering while they play helps develop language skills. 

You may be surprised to hear the words your child has picked up that come out during dramatic play. Kids often mimic things they hear adults and other kids say. They may test those words out while they play pretend.

When they play with other kids or adults, a young child may also learn new words through dramatic play. 

You might tell your child the name for a whisk when you’re pretending to cook in a play kitchen. Your child then learns to associate that word with the tool.

They also learn new ways to use words they already know. While pretending to be a doctor, your child might talk about being sick or using things such as thermometers or stethoscopes in new ways.

Encourage Make-Believe Play

Make-believe play offers a lot more than pure fun for kids. They learn to explore the world, improve relationship skills, and use their imagination. Check out the rest of our blog posts to find even more ways to engage your child in fun play that helps with development.

About the Author

Amanda Acuña an influential Mom Blogger created MommyMandy as an online resource to the parenting community. She has four children and they currently reside in Texas.

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