The Power of Pretend Play

There's a lot of magic behind all that make-believe. Our guide helps you understand and foster it at every age and stage.

By Holly Pevzner



The Power of Pretend Play

My 4-year-old son is Spider-Man today. Yesterday he was Wolverine. Last week he was a chef, a firefighter, and a train conductor. Whether he’s hurdling over molten lava, battling a bad guy, or saving a baby, watching him spin his scenarios always gives me the warm fuzzies.

For all the enjoyment I get from his costume changes, however, the perks for my little guy are even greater. “Fantasy play is a critical skill builder: It helps children better understand the world around them,” says Laura Rubin, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist at the Portsmouth Neuropsychology Center in New Hampshire. It also adds significantly to a kid’s overall development, building language skills and storytelling chops and strengthening the ability to solve problems more creatively.

The advantages also extend to school success. Researchers in Australia found that the more elaborate a 5- to 7-year-old’s pretend games are, the more engaged the child is in the classroom. And thanks to their savvy use of words and narrative, students who are great pretenders also get along better with their classmates.

As it turns out, there’s a lot you can do to help your child reap the benefits of a rich fantasy life. We turned to the experts to find out what’s going on as children develop their powers of imagination, so you can make the most of your child’s magical make-believe milestones.

The Milestone: Pretending He’s Someone Else
Some kids — ahem, mine — are so into pretend games that they play them almost nonstop. (While dress-up games peak during preschool, grade-schoolers shrink the stage, using dolls and action figures to act out similar scenarios.) Role-playing gives kids a chance to try on different identities and feel powerful — even if the rocket ship they’re flying is a cardboard box — and with every new character, your child learns empathy.

Make the Most of It
If you’re offered an invitation to join the fun, accept! “When children pretend with their parents, their games become more advanced, because adults can boost a child’s imagination to another level,” says Jacqueline D. Woolley, Ph.D., a psychology professor and head of the Imagination and Cognition Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.

For instance, when your son serves you “spaghetti,” you can make a face and say, “Oh my gosh, this tastes like pumpkin!” With that, you’ve shifted the scene, which helps him deal with a reaction he wasn’t expecting, Dr. Woolley explains.

Get curious, too. If his Lego Minifigures surround the block castle, ask what they’re planning to do next. “Questions help strengthen your child’s language development and ability to think in more elaborate, creative ways,” says Dr. Rubin.


The Milestone: Making Imaginary Pals
If your child’s favorite guest at tea parties is an invisible one, relax. Fictional playmates go hand in hand with a preschooler’s growing imagination and budding social skills. Far from being lonely (as was once thought), kids with make-believe buddies are just as outgoing with their actual peers, according to a study by University of Oregon researchers.

It actually makes sense: “Imaginary friends let children explore relationships and work through their feelings,” says Nancy S. Buck, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and author of How to Be a Great Parent: Understanding Your Child’s Wants and Needs. Of course, a child can practice these skills with real-life pals, too. It’s just easier for her to control the action when the interactions are in her head.

And while many kids ditch their imaginary sidekicks around kindergarten, nearly a third still have one at 6 and 7 — though they tend to swap the original for a new one, a follow-up study by the same researchers found.

Encourage It
One way to show respect for your child’s imagination is by asking questions about her fictitious friends, suggests Jerome L. Singer, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at Yale University and author of Imagination and Play in the Electronic Age. Just don’t overdo it. For example, it’s okay to ask your child if her make-believe bud would like a napkin as you sit down to dinner, but don’t turn to the empty chair to solicit an opinion on the mac and cheese. “If you start initiating conversations with someone who doesn’t exist, your child will think you’re the one who’s delusional,” says Dr. Singer.

The Milestone: Feeling Scared of Monsters
Pair a little kid’s vivid imagination with a still-developing ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, and it’s no surprise that you get a fear of monsters and other scary critters. By the time a kid is 4, he’ll realize deep down that monsters aren’t real, but it’s not enough to make the terror go away. “Like adults, kids get caught up in their emotions. Think of the last time you were home alone and kept imagining that the creepy clown from American Horror Story was downstairs,” says Dr. Woolley.

Of course, fears cause anxiety, but mastering them can build your child’s confidence and resilience. That’s where you come in.

Conquer It 
Take advantage of your child’s active imagination by offering fantasy-based solutions that can empower him. “One mom gave her daughter, who was scared of ghosts, an empty shoebox with a baby ghost inside,” says Dr. Woolley. “The idea of caring for a tiny, helpless ghost made her daughter less afraid of them.”

Or arm your child with some kind of anti-monster spray. If he asks you why he needs a spray if monsters don’t exist, avoid engaging in an argument over whether they’re real or not. Instead counter the question with this: “Even if I don’t believe in monsters, you do, though you won’t someday. So I want to give you something that will help you feel better now. How about we give it a try and see what happens?”


The Milestone: Believing in Santa
While fears of monsters are short-lived, a belief in mythical beings like Santa and the tooth fairy can persist for years. That’s because kids tend to trust what parents tell them (“The Easter Bunny brought you candy!”) and because they see evidence (the Elf is on a different shelf each morning).

Santa, the Easter Bunny, and other magical characters give kids something bigger to believe in, whether a family is religious or not. Plus, they represent important values: generosity, love, and togetherness. Even when kids get suspicious, Santa and his kind keep on giving by encouraging kids to act like scientists, says Dr. Woolley. “They begin searching for evidence of their existence long before parents ever realize it.”

Make the Most of It
Keep up the story for as long as your child believes. If she expresses doubt, there’s no need to spill right away. Instead, you could ask an open-ended question (“What do you think about Santa?”).

If you think she can handle the truth, nudge her a little closer by not disguising your handwriting on Santa’s gifts, for example, Dr. Woolley suggests. Rest assured that when kids do finally figure it out, they’re often proud to be among “those who know.” So don’t be surprised if your child eagerly joins the fun to keep the dream alive for her younger siblings!

Photo Credit: Dana Gallagher

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