The 10 Surprising Benefits of Pretend Play

Written by Lee Orlian
Interior designer & co-founder of Teepee Joy.

As a new mom, I was surprised to discover just how early my girls began engaging in make-believe play, just as I am sure many of you were surprised to witness the same thing.

When we first decided to follow our dreams, and go into the business of creating beautiful play tents and teepees for children, I knew that the concept we should focus on the most was the benefits of pretend play.

Children’s imaginations begin blossoming when they are still very young, and I feel that one of the best things we can do as parents and caretakers is to foster and encourage pretend play.

Children learn through playing. It may look like all fun and games – and it is to a certain extent – but what we are also seeing are developing brains very hard at work. Any child who is allowed to explore the world around them through their imagination will thrive.

Especially in the following areas:

Children Gain Social Skills

My girls were toddlers when they began to engage in pretend play. I noticed that for a long time, they tended want to do so by themselves. Certainly, sibling relationships take some time to develop, but their independent play seemed to be more of a developmental stage than any sort of comment on their sister’s behavior.

As they grew older, I noticed that they would begin to incorporate friends, and each other into their imaginative scenarios. The difference in their attitudes and even the types of games they made up changed dramatically once other children were involved.

This is because they were using pretend play to gain social skills.

Any mother of young children will tell you, it may be easier to move a mountain than it is to get a three-year-old to share their toys. However, allowing kids to make-believe with one another lets them explore concepts like sharing, taking turns, talking through their feelings, controlling their anger, and cooperation.

These may seem like rudimentary concepts, but to a child experiencing them for the first time, these new ideas are earth shattering. Pretend play is an excellent way to allow children to ease in to this new worldview at their own pace.

Children Gain Emotional Intelligence

If you have ever spent time with a preschooler, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that children struggle with the notion that other people have feelings too. When we see this behavior in young children, our first inclination might be to roll our eyes (or occasionally count to ten while breathing deeply), but when we take a step back, it makes a lot of sense.

Children by definition are very susceptible to sensory overload. There are so many sights, sounds, feelings, and information to take in and process. At certain times, it really might be asking too much of a young child to throw a concept like “courtesy” on top of it all. When they’re in the moment, they’re focused on themselves. Focusing on others is a skill that must be learned.

Of course, when children play pretend, they cycle through all sorts of emotions and experiences in a safe and controlled environment. If a friend pretends that her feelings are hurt, another friend can pretend to soothe those hurt feelings. Likewise, if a friend pretends to be scared, the kids can address that fear.

Together, the children are making the connection that other people’s feelings are important, and deserving of their attention.

Children Get to Know Themselves

Small children don’t have a whole lot of say in what they do from day to day. Sure, they might loudly and unequivocally let you know their opinion of the green beans you tried to serve with dinner, but kids are still largely following along with whatever you are doing.

Of course, children can learn a lot from your example, and can be exposed to new experiences along with you, but when it comes to figuring out who they are, their likes and dislikes, or how they feel about all the things around them, pretend play is what allows them to go exploring.

Here are some examples I have seen, or heard about from friends:
1. A child living in a home without pets suddenly discovers that he loves animals, despite his parents feeling otherwise. He likes to pretend that he is working on a farm, or at the zoo.
2. A girl surrounded by her older sister’s hand-me-down Barbies decides that she really does not like dolls at all, and is far more interested in toys that allow her to build something. She loves to make pretend cities and castles, but for herself. Not the Barbies.
3. A child who seems like they are constantly underfoot in the kitchen discovers that they love to prepare pretend (or occasionally real) food for everyone in the family.
It takes a fair amount of exploration to figure out who you are. Children get to take the time to do this through pretend play.
Small children don’t have a whole lot of say in what they do from day to day. Sure, they might loudly and unequivocally let you know their opinion of the green beans you tried to serve with dinner, but kids are still largely following along with whatever you are doing.
Of course, children can learn a lot from your example, and can be exposed to new experiences along with you, but when it comes to figuring out who they are, their likes and dislikes, or how they feel about all the things around them, pretend play is what allows them to go exploring.

Children Explore the World Around Them

For children, the world must seem like it is whizzing by so fast. Even as adults, we often feel the need to slow down and take our time to absorb a brand-new experience. Meanwhile, children are having brand-new experiences all the time, without a spare moment to process it all.

How can they work through their feelings?

For some clues, let’s look at the pretend play definition: “…a healthy part of every child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development and should not be feared by parents or educators.” (Psychology Today)

Don’t be surprised if you find your children playing “dentist’s office” the day after they have their teeth cleaned, or playing “school” leading up to their first day of Pre-K. This is their way of processing and unpacking new experiences.

Children Confront Scary or Confusing Topics

It is incredibly hard to guess what will or will not scare your children. As a mother of two, I know that it is entirely likely that one of your children may be terrified of spiders, while the other is fascinated by them. (How that plays out is always interesting…)

Traditionally scary characters such as dragons or ghosts may become your child’s favorite playthings. On the other hand, objects that you consider innocuous such as clouds or crooked tree branches may seem absolutely terrifying to your child.

Part of the fear children feel about certain objects or situations stems from the fact that they cannot control when they will encounter them. A thunderstorm could sweep through at any moment, a TV commercial might feature a mouse, or a large dog might begin barking at them from a neighbor’s home.

During pretend play, children get the opportunity to explore and confront these fears in a safe and controlled way. They may come to a deeper understanding of why they are afraid, or their fears might even lessen after repeated exposure to the concept.

Children Can Make Friends

…Literally make them.

Imaginary friends, pretend friends, invisible pals… whatever you may call them, these unseen playmates are a healthy and important part of pretend play.

As I mentioned earlier, when my children were younger, the vastly preferred playing by themselves as opposed to playing with each other, or with friends. This is typical of young children, because concepts like “playing together” are huge and difficult to grasp at first.

Many kids use imaginary playmates as an opportunity to “practice” friendship. The adventures they go on with their unseen pals is really just rehearsal for the real thing.

Of course, these imaginary friends are often able to do more (or perhaps get away with more) than your kids can. This is because imaginary friends are also used as a way of testing boundaries or learning their limitations.

Children Get the Chance to Apply New Knowledge to Their Play

Kids are constantly soaking up the new information while they are out and about in the world. They are often eager to take the new things they have learned, and try them out during pretend play. This could be anything from a dance moves, to a coin trick, to an especially long word that they just learned how to pronounce.

The point is, pretend play gives children the opportunity to rehearse and practice new concepts they’ve picked up during their busy days. They get to see and experience how these new bits of knowledge play out in real-time.

This is an important aspect of learning new skills. Kids are not always given the time they need to practice or to go over new information. Pretend play is the perfect opportunity for them to stop, and go back over some new information.

Improved Language Skills

Communication is an important part of pretend play, especially when friends or siblings are involved. However, even solitary pretend play can be a surprisingly verbal activity.

If you’ve ever listened in on your kids playing pretend, you might be surprised, amused (and yes, occasionally shocked) by what you hear them saying.

I know I was surprised to hear my girls using more sophisticated words and phrases I didn’t realize they’d picked up on – but of course, kids are amazing listeners! It was always interesting to watch them test out an expanded vocabulary in the safety of a make-believe environment first, before bringing them into their everyday speech.

Imaginary play with friends allows for children to hear their friends speak, and they can pick up new words and phrases from them.

Problem Solving Practice

The first time my kids told me that the living room floor was lava, I laughed, and played along. After a few more lava invasions in my house, I realized there was a lot more at work here.

They were solving problems.

Children often dream up and incorporate obstacles into their pretend play. These might take the form of a monster blocking a door, a secret word that must be guessed before you’re allowed into a hideout, or a certain toy or object that must be found.

Finding a way around these obstacles, or addressing them up front, is even more practice for real-life situations. Every time a lava floor is successfully navigated, kids become more confident of their ability to face down and solve problems.

Children Learn the Importance of Imagination

Here’s an often overlooked benefit:

Children learn that imagination itself is important.

And that’s a good thing, because every inventor, designer, computer programmer, writer, or auto mechanic uses their imagination every day. They take the skills they learned as young children, and apply them to the everyday problems they face as adults. They have to think, and imagine a way to address issues. They have to go over the consequences and potential outcomes in their minds before trying it out.

Kids who are given ample time to engage in imaginative play begin to realize that it is a good use of their time. By using their imaginations in their playtime, they are more likely to apply that same creativity in school, in social situations, and to help solve problems.

Each tent that we design is made with this knowledge. We want to help nurture the imaginations of children everywhere, because we’ve seen how powerful and amazing the minds of children can be.

Please spread the word! Share this blog post on social media to let your friends and family know the importance of pretend play