The Benefits of Pretend Play — and Why Parents Shouldn’t Play Along

Pretending is a common activity in childhood. If you were like me as a kid, you pretended all the time. I pretended to care for my stuffed animals, that the floor was hot lava, and that I was Disney characters, mostly Princess Jasmine.

But pretending isn’t all fun and games — it’s actually a complex cognitive activity that has profound influence on a child’s learning and social development.

When children pretend, they’re using something to stand for something else. When I pretended the floor was hot lava, the floor represented lava and the couches around my living room represented land that kept me safe. Using something to represent something else is a symbolic activity — just like using a map to navigate a city is a symbolic activity.

Although pretending is complex, children start to pretend on their own around 12-months of age and continue throughout childhood. Their pretense usually starts with simple acts, like pretending to put a baby doll to sleep, and then becomes more complex, like using objects to pretend (pretending a banana is a phone) or enacting social scenarios with other kids (playing cops and robbers).

The most important aspect of pretend play is that it provides children with a safe space to practice skills, imagine different situations and experience conflict without any real-word repercussions. Think about imaginary friends — children create their own companions that they can interact with in whatever way they want, which often includes unpleasant situations, like getting into arguments.

In a research paper in which children were interviewed about their imaginary friends, one child described her friend as an invisible, 7-inch tall elephant that wore a tank top and was sometimes mean to the child. Another child said her imaginary friend put yogurt in her hair.

Having an imaginary friend allows children to experience negative emotions like sadness and anger that have no actual retribution in the real world. And because these children make a safe space for themselves to experience these situations at a young age, they tend to have better social skills when they are older.

Research shows that children with imaginary friends tend to be more creative, outgoing and better at identifying and dealing with their emotions. Research also shows similar findings for children that engage in pretend play. Children’s pretend play predicts their creativity, social skills and their ability to understand other people’s feelings.

Children benefit from creating their own absurd and unpredictable imaginary worlds, so if parents interfere and try to guide their children’s pretense or conform it to reality, they can restrict their children’s creativity. Research shows there is a negative correlation between number of adults present in play area and the frequency and sophistication of children’s social pretend play. In other words, when there are more adults, children pretend less and their pretense is less creative.

Although children pretend play and imaginary friends may seem ridiculous to us, engaging in fantasy play is really awesome for children’s social and emotional development. As adults, we should do our best to encourage pretend play without interfering with it. Embrace the ridiculousness of your child’s pretend play, because it’s their way of learning how to behave in the real world.