Pretend Play: The Magical Benefits of Role Play

"Let's play castle! I'll be the princess—you be the knight!" "Mommy, can I help wash the dishes?" "When I grow up, I want to be a fireman."

Sound familiar? If you have a child, you probably hear these things all the time. Children are naturally drawn to role play—the magical art of imitation and make believe.

But role play is more than fun...it's a key component of learning. According to child development experts, role play helps children acquire all kinds of skills and knowledge, encouraging them to:

  • Explore imagination
  • Think in the abstract
  • Acquire language skills
  • Build social skills
  • Problem solve
  • Understand someone else's perspective
  • Learn essential life skills from adults
  • Discover leadership skills
  • Safely explore the world beyond
  • Acquire confidence and a sense of self

If that isn't amazing enough, consider this: because role play engages emotion, cognition, language, and sensory motor skills, scientists theorize it actually creates synaptic connections between parts of the brain. And the more synapses, the greater a child's intelligence!

There are different types of role play, and they help serve different purposes. Encourage them all...and nurture your child's natural gifts.

Imitating Mom and Dad

For most kids, this is one of the first forms of role play. You vacuum; your child wants to, too. You go to the ATM; your child wants to push the machine's buttons.

Imitative role play helps kids understand who their parents are and what grown-ups do. It also helps them acquire important life skills that will help them become independent adults.

Encourage your child to help you with chores and errands, like setting the table and selecting groceries. Choose toys that trigger imitative play, like "playing house," driving a battery-operated car, or taking care of a doll.

Playing Dress-Up

In the wink of an eye, most kids can turn a towel into a superhero cape...a royal robe...or a cloak of invisibility. Playing dress up instantly transports kids into the role of someone else—real or imaginary.

Most small fry love dressing up in grown-up clothes, and this is terrific (as long as you clearly communicate what clothing is and isn't available for play). In addition, providing your child with dress-up quality costumes is a great way to encourage these role play adventures. When shopping for Halloween costumes, get the most from them—choose characters your child will enjoy "being" all year long.

Acting Out Real-Life Situations

What child doesn't enjoy playing school, store, or doctor? One way kids learn about the people in their world is by recreating real-life people, places and situations. As they play, they reinforce what they've learned about appropriate behavior in different situation.

More likely than not, when kids explore this type of role play, they're not alone—they're playing with a pal or two. And that's even better! Cooperative role play teaches kids how to negotiate, take turns, work as part of a team, and play leader—all necessary to developing social skills.

Reenacting Stories

When children reenact stories, it helps them appreciate other people's perspectives and feelings. How did Cinderella feel about missing the ball? Was Harry Potter afraid before he opened the secret door? This encourages feelings of empathy.

In addition, repeating dialogue— whether written in a book or spoken in a movie—helps kids build language skills and vocabulary. There is some evidence to suggest it may even encourage children to enjoy reading.

Creating a Make-Believe Space

Whether it's a big empty box, a tent, or a tree house, designated "pretend" spaces encourage kids to create make-believe worlds. Indoors or out, playhouses never lose their universal appeal.

In these magical spaces, children feel free to be anyone—to leave the everyday world behind and let imagination soar.

Performing for an Audience

Does your child love performing in front of the family? Encourage it! Acting out skits, singing, playing an instrument, dancing, performing a comedy routine—all these activities help kids develop talent and self-esteem.

There are many benefits to "putting on a show"—writing a script requires creativity, working with a "troupe" calls on cooperative skills, and facing an audience builds public speaking skills.

And the sweet sound of applause that follows a successful production is a terrific confidence-builder. What child doesn't benefit from that?

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