Nothing makes my heart sing more than when I see a child enter the world of imaginative play. Children can be anyone they want to be while immersed in play: mom/dad, grandma/grandpa, a doctor, a firefighter, or a unicorn – just to name a few. Usually, imaginative play starts off simply when a child begins to imitate things they observe in their environment. They may pick up a play phone and bring it to their ear or bring a toy cup to their mouth. Eventually, as a child gets older their pretend play will contain an entire story.
Why does imaginative play make my heart sing? Pretend play shows us that children are becoming symbolic. They are learning to use one object to represent another (i.e. he picks up a block and pretends to talk on the phone.) This is important to language because words are a set of symbols that we use to represent people, places, actions, ideas, and abstract concepts like emotions (happy, sad, mad) or physical states (hungry, tired, cold). When a child begins to use pretend play we can see the foundation for language learning grow.
How can you as a parent or caregiver promote pretend play? Have household items readily available for your child to play with. If your child’s interested in watching you cook, give them a bowl and spoon and see what they do. Does your child bang the bowl with the spoon? If so, their play is still exploratory. Does your child pretend to stir? If so, they’re entering the realm of pretend play. Maybe, they’ll pretend to take a bite of the ‘food’ or you can help them expand their play by asking for a bite of what they’re making. Other household items that are great for pretend play include brooms, brushes, and washcloths. Anything that your child can use to pretend they’re participating in their daily routine will help expand their pretend play.
If your child starts pretending with your household items and you are still looking for ways to expand his play check out the selection of imaginative toys at Toyology Toys. They make sets for everything: cleaning, cooking, going to the doctor, or being a farmer. I suggest starting with something that’s very familiar to your child. For example, if you make cookies together every week, check out the Melissa & Doug Slice and Bake Wooden Cookie Play Food Set. It comes with cookies, topping pieces to decorate the cookies, an oven mitt, baking sheet, and spatula. Your child can pretend they’re in charge of the baking. They can pretend the baking sheet is too hot to touch without the oven mitt.
Do you make coffee in your Keurig every morning? Check out the Melissa and Doug 11-piece Brew and Serve Coffee Maker Set. Then your little one can join you for a morning cup of joe. The food sets are endless if you make something at home Toyology probably has a set to go along with it (i.e. waffles, pasta, salad, cake, snacks).
Do you clean the kitchen every day? Check out the Melissa & Doug Let’s Play House Dust! Sweep! Mop! Play Set or the Melissa & Doug Spray Squirt, and Squeegee Play Set. Pretty soon your child will be able to take over the real cleaning for you. Does your child love to run errands with you? Get your child a play cash register, shopping cart, or doctor’s set. These are great toys to help your child use their imaginative play to expand what they see in the real world.
Once you see your child start to engage in pretend play, sit down observe and see where you can join in the play. Try to follow their lead in the play. This means you see what captures your child’s attention. Let your child interact with the toys and then you join in by imitating what your child is doing (i.e. if your child is pretending to stir you pretend to stir), commenting about what your child is doing (i.e. “you’re stirring the cookies”), or join in the play (i.e. pretend to eat a cookie). Try to stay focused on what your child is doing and avoid making comments or giving directions that will take your child’s attention away from the task that they have initiated. If your child’s play with the object seems repetitive you can try commenting to help your child expand what they are doing. For example, if your child is making cookies but stirs the cookies over and over and doesn’t try another step, you could say “Those cookies look so yummy. I really want to try one.” Then wait and give them time. Your child may offer you one. You can tell them how yummy it tastes. If your child offers you another you can say “no, I’m full” or take the cookie and pretend it’s yucky. In this way, you are following your child’s lead but expanding the type of play and reactions they are being introduced to.
Another trick I like to use with pretend play is puppets, dolls, or stuffed animals. In the previous example, the child was making cookies and feeding them to you. When you get “full” you could grab a puppet and tell the child that the puppet is so hungry. In this way, you are still following your child’s lead/idea but adding another level of pretending. Sometimes the puppet may love the cookies, sometimes he may spit the cookie out and say “yucky” or he might eat too much and get a tummy ache. The possibilities in imaginative play are endless.
Pretend play usually begins between 18 and 24 months of age. Again, it starts fairly simply with the child pretending to do single activities that they have watched their caregivers do (eat, brush hair, put on a hat, talk on the phone). What if you don’t see your child doing these things? You can help facilitate this stage by gathering a few common objects (i.e. phone, keys, brush, cup, spoon) and practice using them functionally (for their intended purpose). Sit face to face with your child and demonstrate the objects use, then wait and see if the child imitates you. If your child does use the object functionally smile and make a simple comment (i.e. “talk on the phone”) to reinforce the action. If your child doesn’t you can help them and make the same comment. If you make this a fun part of your day hopefully your child will catch on quickly and the pretend play will continue to expand.
I focused mainly on pretend kitchen play because it is a great place to start. Eating is something we all do and it’s a social activity. As your child gets a little older dollhouses or other playsets with figurines (i.e. airport, school, fire station) are great additions. There is no one size fits all toy, look at what interests your child and build from there. You can also use your child’s interest to expand their play. If it seems like your child plays with cars all day every day and you want to expand their interest then maybe the car gets sick and goes to the doctor. You can check the cars ‘heart’ with a toy stethoscope or check the car’s temperature. Or, maybe the car gets hungry and needs to go to the kitchen to “eat”. Remember, it’s pretend play, there is no right/wrong answer, whatever you or your child does they are expanding their imagination, building problem-solving skills, and increasing their language skills. Bring back your inner child, get on the floor, and have fun with your child.
Randi is wife and mother to three kids aged 12, 10 and 4. She was born and raised in West Bloomfield where she is currently a stay-at-home mom to provide language rich activities for her youngest, who has Autism. Prior to making the switch to full time mommy, Randi was a pediatric speech pathologist for the past 15 years.