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Make-Believe Play

Like all kinds of play, make-believe play is important for development. Through it, your child can learn social and emotional skills, language and thinking skills. Make-believe play allows your child to explore characters, emotions and roles, in a safe way. They can use make-believe to make sense of their world, processing difficult emotions and learning about themselves and others. At challenging times it really comes into its own.

How To Engage In Make-Believe Play With Your Child

Whenever children say “let’s pretend”, a new landscape of possibilities for learning is revealed. When children pretend, they try on new feelings, roles and ideas. They stretch their minds along with their imaginations.

Deb Curtis and Margie Carter

“Come on, come on” Stevie shouted excitedly. “We have to get going or we will miss the plane”.

He tips out the shopping items from a case and stuffs a teddy into it, rushing towards the sofa and grabbing a magic wand as he goes.

We sit close together on the sofa where he has become the pilot of the plane, using the magic wand stuffed between the seats as a gear stick. We fly away at great speed and as the pilot, he reassures Teddy and me that we will be ok and not to be scared because he is a great pilot. When we safely arrive at our destination (as yet unknown) he becomes the dad and rushes around to get us some food to eat: Playdough balls of different sizes and shapes. Stevie then turns his attention to where we will sleep and lays out a fabric square for me, tips out toys from a box for Teddy and says he will sleep on the floor. After a brief moment, we are up again and on our way back home. There’s been an emergency, and as a fireman, he has to sort it out.

This is called make-believe play. Here, a sofa can become a plane, playdough is food, and a little boy can be a fireman, a pilot and a dad. Anything can happen. And in that anything, children make another world. Transformation and invention are at the heart of make-believe play. Your child is limited only by their imagination.

It is tempting to think this is just pretending. Silly games. But it is much more than that.

The Benefits of Make-Believe Play

Like all kinds of play, make-believe play is important for development. Through it, your child can learn social and emotional skills, language and thinking skills. Make-believe play allows your child to explore characters, emotions and roles, in a safe way. They can use make-believe to make sense of their world, processing difficult emotions and learning about themselves and others. At challenging times it really comes into its own.

One of the most obvious benefits of make-believe play is developing the imagination. This is not just the ability to picture dragons in the house. Imagination allows us to invent solutions to problems we may face. Problems may be solved by following a plan, by making a choice, or they may need something completely new to come out of the box. This is where creativity and imagination can have real-world benefits.

Another benefit of make-believe play is the ability to explore emotions. When your child is engaging in make-believe, they are often creating emotional situations like the emergency in the example above. From acting-out being scared of the lion in the corner to full-on social dramas involving real or imagined characters, your child can not only create realistic emotional expressions but work through them. A huge gain from this is learning the ability to recognise feelings in others.

How To Help Your Child Engage In Make-Believe Play

Chances are, your child will already be engaging in make-believe play. But with a few simple steps, you can help them to do this, enriching their experience, and helping them to grow and develop.

Create The Space

Find an area/corner of a room somewhere in your home, or outside when the weather allows. This should be somewhere your child has the space to create a ‘world’ or a den. A play tent or sheet thrown over the table works well. When outside, throw a sheet over a washing line. Children can bring make-believe into any space, but creating a zone like this helps you by containing it, especially if you work from home or have other children. And it helps them by putting things they might use close at hand. Speaking of which …

Add The Props

Add items that can be used in different ways. If you already have house, shop and doctor play things then use these. But remember a cardboard box can be anything. Add a range of dressing-up things like hats, gloves and pieces of fabric that can be used as drapes, blankets and clothes. Add card, paper, tape and pens so they can create their own props too. Items from the natural world are great too such as shells, sticks and leaves.

Once you have provided the props, stand back and let your child decide how they will use them. Try not to worry if they create a narrative that isn’t conventional. Remember that make-believe play allows children to express and explore a wide range of emotions in a safe place. So a fight scene doesn’t have to be worrying but could be their way of exploring how they wish to be the best and win things.

Join In

Show an interest in the world your child creates and join in if they want you to. They may have a specific role for you or you may have to guess what they’d like you to do. Even if you aren’t playing a direct role you can commentate using language that helps your child develop their characters and emotions. For example, “I can see those two are fighting. I wonder who will win.” Try to avoid asking too many questions though as this can take the child away from their imaginary world.

Your Child Is The Director

Accept that they are in charge of what happens and what they and you do. This is their chance to take charge. You are the actor in their play so be led by them. Unless it’s unsafe then go with their lead. Allow them to solve their own problems, and don’t rush in to rescue them unless you see their frustration. Giving them the chance to direct their play and solve problems helps develop their ability to keep on trying when things get tricky.

Other Tips

If you are concerned about safety, don’t include items you are worried about. You know your child best. Try not to make too many rules though as it can restrict their imagination. Some children hold back for fear of getting it wrong. Use the structuring statement so you can intervene if you need too.

“There aren’t a lot of rules for this play…but we won’t hurt anyone or hurt yourself, or break things on purpose. If there’s anything you can’t do I’ll let you know.”

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