Encouraging Pretend Play in Young Children feature (image)

Encouraging Pretend Play in Young Children Builds Their Brains

This time of year, stores are filled with seasonal costumes and children excitedly transforming into their favorite superhero or cartoon character. For young children, the type of play associated with dressing up and pretending to be someone else is an integral part of learning.

“Did you ever stop to watch toddlers or preschoolers imagining themselves as princesses and pirates?” said Ginger Sandweg, senior director for early learning at First Things First. “When children play, they draw on all their past experiences—things they have done, seen others do, or heard stories about—and use those to develop their own situations, stories and scenarios. And they are learning in the process.”
According to the LEGO Foundation, whose mission is to make children’s lives better and communities stronger by making sure the fundamental value of play is understood, embraced and acted upon, there are different types of play. All which support an aspect of physical, intellectual, and social-emotional growth.

Socio-dramatic play is easy to spot. Watch a child dress up and pretend he is someone or something else, for example, pretending to be a firefighter or a dog. Researchers say this is the basis of children’s developing social understanding. In fact, research has shown that play impacts everything from physical abilities and vocabulary to problem solving, creativity, teamwork and empathy.

First Things First encourages families to stay active through play, since it is one of the most important ways that young kids learn. So, how do parents recognize play and encourage it in our children? Here are a few guidelines:

  • Play is FUN.
  • Play doesn’t start with a specific goal—such as learning letters or numbers.
  • Play is spontaneous and voluntary.
  • In play, everyone is actively involved.
  • And, finally, play includes an element of make believe.

To encourage play, caregivers can:

  • Advocate for play – open your home and schedule time for play. Re-evaluate your child’s schedule to make sure there are plenty of opportunities and time for play.
  • Provide the resources for stimulating play – not necessarily toys, just plenty of varied objects visible to children. Then, let their creativity take over.
  • Join in the fun, but let your child take the lead. You may think you look silly, but you are expanding your child’s learning.
  • Encourage your child to use his imagination.

Parents and caregivers can help children reach their full potential. It starts with embracing the huge value that play has in helping children learn critical skills that are essential for their future.

About First Things First

First Things First is a voter-created, statewide organization that funds early education and health programs to help kids be successful once they enter kindergarten. Decisions about how those funds are spent are made by local councils staffed by community volunteers. To learn more, visit