When early childhood educator Erika Christakis began teaching preschool in 2001, she was troubled to find that some children at her school were not into pretend play. They could run, throw a ball, do all sorts of art projects, discuss their favorite movies, and recite a litany of animal facts, she writes, “but when it came to the make-believe world of superheroes, firefighters, and mothers and fathers and babies that were once the hallmark of early childhood, these kids usually sat on the sidelines.”1
Playing is important for kids’ brain development
So, as ridiculous as it might sound, she taught her preschoolers how to play.
“I got down on the floor and together we would come up with games of imagination, and assign roles, plots, and rules,” she writes. “Rather than hurry them along to a new activity when the play began to unravel, I would ask the children what they thought they needed to keep things going.”
Here are my best tips for encouraging pretend play (which, incidentally, is terrific for kids’ brain development). Many of them are adapted from Christakis’s wonderful book.
Help your child create a play scenario
Start by getting down on the floor with your child (or children) and brainstorm some games she could play. Tap into what you’ve observed recently about your child. Was she fascinated by a scene in a book or a person she saw on the street? How could you help her turn that into a play scenario?
Then, once you have a scenario, guide her toward finding a role. Let’s say that she and some other kids have decided to play hospital. “Who is going to be the patient?” you might ask. To help kids get into their roles, you could say, “I see you are the nurse. ‘Nurse, I’m feeling really blah today. Will you take my temperature?’”
You might also ask, “What things to nurses need to do their job?” and then help them find, create, or imagine props.
Sometimes the play sputters out quickly. To help them keep the play scenario going, you might tell them more about the role they’re playing. “After nurses take the patient’s temperature, they check blood pressure.”
Introduce exciting information to extend play
To help children extend play, you could inject some new information or energy into the situation. “Uh-oh! There’s been a big accident and some new patients are arriving at the hospital!” You might even take on a brief cameo role in the scene — as the ambulance driver, for example. If a new child comes into the play picture, you could announce, “I see José has just walked into the hospital. What could he do?”
Children may have conflicting ideas about what and where they want to play. For example, if Alyssa wants to play school and Anthony wants to play cars, you might ask, “What if Alyssa’s class wants to go on a field trip? How could Anthony help her?”2
Avoid interrupting pretend play to teach. For example, you would not want to say, “Do you know how a stethoscope works? Let me explain.” On the other hand, it can be helpful to point out things that will help children act out their roles more fully. “Oh, remember stoves are very hot. Be careful!”3
Let your child takeover the situation
Remember, the purpose of all this “play coaching” is to get pretend play going. As soon as it’s going well enough, get out of the way! Children will go further and the play will mean more to them if they’re on their own.
And the more your kids get into pretend play, the more time you’ll have to play on your own or with your friends, too!
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- Erika Christakis, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups, p. 139. Christakis has a wonderful chapter on play beginning on page 138.
- This example is adapted from Elena Bodrova and Deborah J. Leong, Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education, p. 153.
- Bodrova and Leong, p. 153.