After we understand our bodies' needs and we've learned the cause/effect rules of the world around us, we want to change these rules! We drift from our present existence into a world beyond, a world created in our mind with new rules and fantasy places. We enter symbolic play!
Many of us have fond memories of our pretend play as children, and we smile, or even cringe, as we watch our children engage in their sometimes elaborate plots with scary monsters, cops and robbers. Pretend play is our children's way of developing important skills for later in life, including logical thinking, multi-causal thinking, and gray area thinking. This is how we start to figure out the "why" and "how" of the world, not just the "if this; then that"of predicting what comes next.
Some of our children struggle in this area of fantasy and pretend, so again it's important to serve as a gentle guide here. Try to avoid leading their play, and instead give reasons for why your character is doing things. Maybe your character is sick; how did she get sick? What will make her feel better? When should she see the doctor? As your child becomes familiar with a simple plot, you can encourage more elaborate ones with problem solving to rescue a princess trapped by a ghost or even help a robber escape from jail! Good guys and bad guys are all the same here, do not worry about which your child chooses to defend. Let him explore what it's like to be an escaped robber!
Through our interactive, pretend play we are also developing what Kathy Hirsch- Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff (2016) labeled as the Six Cs: collaboration, communication, content, creative innovation, critical thinking, and confidence. These important traits are needed later in our schoolwork and occupations.
When possible, I also like to use pretend play to establish new routines or explore challenging moments, such as separation anxiety or tantrums. If there is a family member who is going off to college, we may role play what's going to happen. We discuss the steps and act out the steps of building her new house on the other side of the room then packing our sister up in a moving truck and bringing her to the new house before we drive back to our house. In the case of tantrums or overreactions, I will be the character who is overreacting and needing the child to problem solve how to calm me down.
You do not always need to use toys either. Anything can be a toy with symbolic play! Especially for our children who prefer big sensory movement and input, building forts and playing knights are great ways to meet your child's sensory needs while engaging in pretend play.
In the video below, I will discuss pretend play and the 6 C's of communication in play.