Young children's capacity and eagerness to engage in increasingly complex pretend play are vital signs of healthy growth — emotionally, socially, and cognitively. What's more, children between the ages of 3 and 5 who cannot pretend, who do not engage in imaginary play, are very likely to face developmental troubles in some or all of those spheres. Dramatic play is not, as some parents and teachers fear, a waste of time; in fact it is the best predictor of a child's capacity for creative thinking and future social success.
We begin to see early forms of pretend play at or even before age 2 when children assign an object (say, a block) to represent something else (perhaps a cell phone). And actual tools, such as a spoon or baby bottle, may also be used, to feed dolls or stuffed animals, for example.
By 4, rich imaginary play flourishes in well-developing children. It is often interactive, and there is an unfolding story. Roles are assigned: "I'll be the teacher and you be the student." As the complexity increases, kids may spend more time establishing the plot and assigning the roles than in the actual play. You can help by being a good member of the cast, providing props such as old clothes or a collection of hats or accepting an assignment (such as calling for plumbers). But your child should be in charge. When adults try to lead the play, many of its intrinsic values are lost.
What are some of those values? Through imaginary play, children:
- Come to terms with their feelings, thoughts, confusions, wishes, even fears.
- Change the power balance by "becoming" the adults in charge: Mommy, Daddy, policeman, teacher, doctor, carpenter, gardener, etc. Suspending the reality of their size, age, and relative powerlessness is very reassuring.
- Fulfill some unacceptable wishes: returning the baby sister to the hospital, for example.
- Make sense of their social environment. If you pretend to be someone else, you will get a sense of how it feels to be that other person.
- Develop feelings of mastery and control. In their role-playing, children are clearly in charge. And the play gives them opportunities to use many of their developing skills: eye-hand coordination, language proficiency, even large motor performance on tricycles or jungle gyms.
- Learn concepts and symbols — far more meaningfully than in situations that call for mere memorization and rote behavior.
- Learn from their mistakes without mortification or any sense of failure.
For all these reasons and more, every early childhood program from preschool to kindergarten and even beyond should value free play and allow ample time for it. Programs that shun such opportunities are not developmentally sound or appropriate.