Pretense and Imagination at Play

After waiting for school to begin all summer long, I was stunned to find my son disappointed when he came back from his first day of Kindergarten. When I asked him why, his answer was “I didn’t get to play! We only learned new rules.” My surprise came from the fact that I already knew this school to be top rated at the state level. So what was happening?

State Requirements VS Playtime

The simple answer is that although playtime-and thus imaginative play-is a big component of childcare centers up to Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten, public school programs must respond to many more state requirements for Kindergarten classes, leaving little room for playtime. So playtime has been gradually reduced to a minimal in class, and recess itself has been shortened considerably. In my son’s school, for example, the recess is only half an hour for kindergartners. Imagine that: only thirty minutes to relax, play, pretend, and get some energy out, when you are five-years-old! It seems like nothing compared to what we grew up with, doesn’t it? But of course, if pretend play is not a state requirement for schools, then we won’t see it in classrooms, and it falls on us to take over the duty of letting our children use their imaginations at home.

The Benefits of Imaginative Play

 Imaginative play, a form of which is called pretend play, appears some time between the ages of 1 and 2, at the same time that pretense, receptive and expressive language, and mental representation (thinking in pictures using symbols) develop. You observe it when you see children begin to use a shoe as a boat, dress up, play with cars, or use a bottle to feed a doll. In later stages, often around 3 years old, imaginative play includes other members, as children learn to share and play with others. Toddlers and preschoolers may then be playing alone with toys, with an imaginary friend, or with real friends. Those are normal behaviors that have a multitude of benefits for your child’s general development.

Social-emotional skills: During their play, children will practice role-playing and improvisation while inanimate toys may take on a new life. High-quality pretend play also allows children to practice responsibility, empathy (sharing and recognizing someone else’s emotions), taking turns, and understanding social roles. The development of those early skills is associated in literature to social success later in life.

Language skills: Language is a big part of pretend play. Children learn to communicate their plans, their ideas, and learn imitation. High-quality pretend play involves communication through dialogue between partners, and even some early stages of negotiation.

Cognitive skills: Children learn to put themselves in someone else’s shoes (Perspective-taking). While they take on different roles, children create a story, and share it with their play partners. They must thus put on their thinking caps, and use cognitive abilities for such tasks as planning, organizing, setting and seeking goals, problem-solving, and executing the plan (executive skills). So, for example, pretending that a piece of wood is a sword to play knights games will develop creative skills. Experts even consider imaginative play as an early sign of creative thinking.

Academics: Of course, all these cognitive skills have an effect on academic performance. Planning an imaginary scenario in young childhood, for instance, is a sort of dress rehearsal for planning and carrying out bigger things later in life, like preparing to study and do well on an exam. The more children practice using these important cognitive skills, the easier it will be to apply them to school-related situations in the future.

As you can see, the need for parents and educators to bring imaginative play back in children’s lives is imperative. And the good thing with imagination is that it does not require any background, professional license, or additional materials. You won’t need anything that you would not already have at home or at school. Of course children can use their vehicles, planes, dolls, stuffed animals, kitchenette, playground, or tree house, if they have any of those things. But all they really need, is time and imagination. And if a tea party isn’t your thing, it doesn’t need to be. Going with the flow is more effective than giving children a script to follow. So let them take the lead, participate only if you can or if you feel like it. But remember to let them take over, while you just relax and enjoy the show. I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel like there is nothing I enjoy more than watch my kids get absorbed in their own play and enter their imaginary world. It’s one of the many things that make me miss my own childhood!


Bergen, Doris. (1998). Stages of play development. In Doris Bergen (Ed.), Readings

from … Play as a medium for learning and development (pp. 71-93). Olney, MD:

Association for Childhood Education International. ED 421 252.

Doris Bergen, Miami University (2002)

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