The benefits of imaginative play, otherwise known as ‘pretend play’, ‘creative play’, or ‘dramatic play’, are sometimes dismissed because well, how can anything important be such fun?! Luckily, we know that pretending together is truly the best way to build our children’s independence and confidence, to help them see from multiple perspectives and to process a whole range of emotions. And once we start to pretend with young children, we find opportunities for them to learn through play throughout our time together: within our daily routines, during day trips, in the playground, and even in difficult moments. And besides benefiting our children’s development, our efforts as practitioners to encourage learning through play are rewarded with a strong, trusting connection with our children.
And imaginative play is all the more powerful not only because it harnesses a young child’s instinctive desire to pretend, but because it enables children to experience the world around them, even if they’re not directly able to do so. So what if it’s sunny outside, who wants to jump through the snow? Want to learn about the pyramids? Let’s get on our magic carpet and fly to Egypt!
Furthermore, pretend play can help early years children trial potentially stressful or scary situations before they happen. Do you work with little ones who are worried about a trip to the dentist, or nervous about starting big school? Immerse them in an imaginative world and let them discover there’s nothing to be nervous about at all.
1. Learning through imaginative play – emotions From birth, babies recognise your face. They are mesmerised, calmed and entertained by your exaggerated facial expressions. As they grow, they learn to recognise emotions by watching you – feeling sad when they see a sad face, and happy when you smile. Adults who express themselves in ‘pretend play’ with a range of emotions teach children to recognise, name, express, and then manage those emotions in themselves. Take this one step further and incorporate imagination into the mix and it is easy to see how powerful (and how much fun!) emotional development can be; taking on the role of a dragon who has lost her egg, pretending to be a fish joyfully swimming through the ocean or acting as if you’re Miss Polly feeling sad about her sick dolly, immerses EYFS children into a make-believe world where they can experience different emotions in a safe, supportive and enjoyable environment.
2. Learning through imaginative play – relationships When you pretend with a child, they learn that you will listen to them and that you value their ideas. They also develop an interest in your ideas, emotions, and problems. Communicating in a playful, imaginative way is the best way to develop a strong relationship with your child. Bonds that are formed between early years children and their trusted adults when playing imaginatively are strong, lasting and impactful.
3. Learning through imaginative play – language Because children love to play pretend, they are able to learn vocabulary that might otherwise be out of reach. Play results in children who are strongly motivated to express themselves verbally, even when speech is an area of concern, and it’s by far the most effective way for children to learn how to listen to each other. Because drama is an inclusive vehicle for learning, pretend play is the perfect way to develop and strengthen a child’s language and communication who may be otherwise finding it difficult to express themselves. Successful verbal and non-verbal communication is the first
4. Learning through imaginative play – physical development Establish an imaginary world in your living room or at the park and watch your children move! With the tiniest imaginative suggestion from you, your children will be climbing mountains, stomping in puddles, or balancing on a log, building their physical strength and motor control. Try this in a group and see how children learn spatial sense and control over their own movements.
5. Learning through imaginative play – trialling difficult situations Because children learn through play, imaginative play is the best way to teach a child to cope with difficult situations. Pretend trips to the dentist, on an aeroplane, or even playdate can make the real thing feel much easier.
6. Learning through imaginative play – understanding the world Only through pretend can children visit the moon, fix a car, or dive to the bottom of the ocean. Extending their learning through play by sharing an imaginary adventure is the most natural way to stretch your children’s understanding of the world around them, not to mention understanding other people’s perspectives.
7. Learning through imaginative play – sense of self In pretend play, children can do absolutely anything that they set their minds to! This transfers to a sense of self-efficacy and the confidence to try new things in real life. To a child who might be struggling to meet the milestones of riding a bike, tying shoes, or getting a glass of water, solving problems in a pretend world can provide a welcome confidence boost.
8. Learning through imaginative play – well-being Studies have shown that play is as important to our happiness and well-being as love and work. When children play they laugh (and make others laugh), learn to communicate and make new friends, as well as jump, dance, stretch and run – all producing lots and lots of those feel-good chemicals, endorphins.