Pretend play and what it means for your child’s development

Did you know pretend play is directly linked to your child’s language development?

For [12 months to school age]

Pretend play means using toys that inspire imaginative play (such as dolls, teddies, trucks and farm animals) and also using objects that can be used as something else (for example, a block for a phone or car, a stick for a sword or a hand action for a screwdriver).  Pretend play is ideal for a child to practice what they have seen and learnt in the real world.  It is SO important in a child’s development, it has sometimes been referred to as a ‘child’s occupation’.

How does language development contribute to pretend play skills?

Any time from 12 months old, your child starts to take in a lot more of the world around them.  Your child will start learning more and more words every day, with their increased attention to objects, people and what they are doing.  They will start to practice actions they have seen (for example, attempting to brush their hair, putting a phone to their ear or having a drink from a dry cup), to make sense of their world.  But this practicing with real objects can only go so far, before they will extend this to pretend play.  This is when the child no longer uses the brush on their own hair, but turns to dolly or teddy and brushes their hair.  This is quite a significant milestone in that your child is starting to move away from only seeing the world from their own perspective!

In order to develop more and more play skills, a child’s brain needs to start becoming more and more interested in language.  By practicing with a doll or teddy, a child will make sense of the words ‘sleep’, ‘wake up’ and even ‘tired’ by pretending to put them to bed and later sequence another step by waking them up.

Another play action might be to give dolly a ‘bath’.  Initially, to a young child, ‘bath’ may simply mean ‘wash’.  But once they have taken in more of what ‘bath’ entails, they might start to ‘wash’ dolly and then ‘dry’ dolly with a towel.

Just as your child will start to put two words together once they have so many words, your child will start to sequence more than one ‘play action’, once they have so many play actions, such as those listed above.  This might be putting teddy in the bath, drying off with a towel and then to bed or creating a story about a pirate with many, many play actions. Sequencing more and more play actions together creates longer and more complex play scenes, as though your child is creating stories in their mind.  This is how language development is reflected in a child’s pretend play.  And so much so that once a child gets towards school age, they will have the ability to stick with the same play theme and story they have been creating for days on end…if given the chance.

Branded toys such as a Dora doll or Buzz Lightyear character, whilst popular in today’s society, do not challenge your child’s brain.  Instead of the doll being a blank canvas to do anything they like with, your child will be more likely to perform actions they have seen on TV.  The more children rely on TV scripts for their play scenes, the more they have no idea what to do with an ‘unbranded’ toy.  This denies your child the benefits of true pretend play, including developing their language skills.

And by the time your child is five, their language skills will still be reflected in their pretend play.  They should be able to create elaborate stories, negotiating and planning with other children and possibly keeping this going for days!

What are the benefits of encouraging and making time for my child to play imaginatively?

  • It helps your child to learn about feelings and express these when they do not have the words.  This may be in acting out ‘bye bye’ and hiding behind a curtain before reappearing.  How many times have they watched you say ‘bye’ to them?  It may also be a child acting out bullying with their figurines, even if it was only something they saw happen to another child at daycare.  You can really learn a lot by watching how your child plays and what they are acting out.  Play provides a safe place for your child to express themself.
  • It develops problem solving and sequential thinking.  The more sequences your child makes when playing, the more their brain is sequencing a ‘story’ and eventually with problems that need to be solved.
  • It promotes more language development just by your child having to use concepts, words and phrases they have heard in their day and consolidate the meaning of these.
  • It develops social skills and empathy.  The more your child takes on roles and needs other children to play alongside, the more your child has to get along with others and see things from their viewpoint.  The milestone that is still developing!

Stay tuned to learn about how play themes develop as your child gets older, where doll/teddy play moves to and how object substitution progresses.

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Avatar of Heidi Hosking

Heidi Hosking is a Speech Pathologist and mum of two. She is keen to help other parents make the early years count by sharing her knowledge on everything from communication and social-emotional development to feeding, literacy and play.

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