Pretend play is terrific for children, helping them learn self-regulation, language, and social skills. To inspire pretend play, teach children about roles in the adult world and help them get started with a few simple props.
Carla, mother of four-year-old Mateo, has invited Barbara and her five-year-old Kayla and three-year-old Cameron over to the house. Carla is a master at encouraging pretend play among children. Let’s listen in and learn how she does it.
“Mateo, what are you and Kayla and Cameron going to do?” Carla asks.
“We’re going to play,” Mateo responds.
“Did you know Barbara is a nurse?” Carla asks her son. “Maybe she can show you how to be a nurse and you three can play hospital.”
“Yeah!” says Mateo. “I want to be the nurse!”
“I want to be the nurse, too!” shouts five-year-old Kayla.
“Hold on. You two will figure that out,” Carla says calmly. “First, Nurse Barbara can show us what nurses do and what happens at hospitals. Nurse Barbara, did you bring your stethoscope?”
“I sure did!” Barbara says, pulling it out of her bag. This is no accident. Carla asked Barbara to bring her stethoscope and a few other goodies from her occupation.
Teach your children about roles in the adult world
Barbara and Carla act out and describe a hospital scene in front of the kids, with Barbara playing nurse and Carla playing patient. The ambulance arrives, siren and all. Carla has been in an accident! Nurse Barbara asks Patient Carla questions about how she feels. She uses the stethoscope to listen to Carla’s heartbeat. She calls in an imaginary doctor and describes the situation. Carla and the doctor discuss the case and the doctor asks for an IV. Nurse Barbara explains what this means and administers a pretend IV to Patient Carla.
“OK, does everyone understand what happened?” Nurse Barbara asks. The kids have some questions. Everyone talks for a while about what happens at hospitals.
“Ready to play?” Carla asks.
“Yes!” the three respond, and they jump into action. They discuss the roles they will each play: nurse, patient, and doctor. They pull together two chairs to be the ambulance. “This is the door to the hospital,” Kayla says, pointing to the doorway that leads to the next room. Three-year-old Cameron can’t do as much as the older kids, but he’s following along. He’ll be the patient.
Pretend play is as much a delight as it is a learning boon for children. But it might not happen spontaneously. One of the best ways to inspire and support pretend play is to teach children about the roles adults play in the world.1
Barbara and Carla carefully explained what nurses, patients, and doctors do. They were specific, sharing actual language adults use. When children understand the roles people play, they can create rich and extended play scenarios based on them.
Pretend play enhances children’s development
This kind of pretend play is terrific for children’s development. It helps children learn self-regulation as they experiment with playing a role. The patient can’t walk and jump—he’s injured! The nurse has to be very careful and kind to the patient.2
Pretend play is also excellent for the development of language and social skills, as it requires children to communicate and negotiate about things that are important to them.
Help your child jumpstart pretend play
To jump-start pretend play, teach children about adult roles in situations that are interesting to them. Be detailed and specific. Children don’t know what doctors and nurses say to each other unless someone tells them. They’re often fascinated to learn details from the adult world. For children five years old and older, you can also use books to teach them about new themes and roles.
Children need some unstructured time and just a few simple props in order to begin pretend play. The “Nurse Barbaras” in your life can help, too. Whom can you invite over to teach your child—and theirs—about adult roles that might inspire rich and extended pretend play?