As families spend more time at home together due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, parents of preschoolers have found themselves echoing a similar refrain: My kid wants to play pretend all the time. Some find it easy, others think it's tedious, but, as parents spend more and more time in their kids' pretend worlds, questions have popped up about what's normal and what's not when it comes to pretend play.
The good news (or not, depending on your skills at imbibing fake tea): Pretend play is enormously beneficial for kids. "A child’s imaginative and creative play is essential for the development of their social, emotional and cognitive skills, in addition to being a way to explore and discover the world," says Donna Housman, Ed.D., founder and CEO of the Housman Institute. "There are so many benefits to this kind of play, including the development of self-control and self-regulation, increased concentration, the ability to explore developmental skills through an area of interest, and an enjoyment of the process of learning rather than the product — all while also fostering social-emotional development and academic success."
Pretend play is even more essential now, or during other periods of great stress. "In crisis-ridden times such as these, it is more important than ever to allow kids time to pretend play," says Carlin Barnes, M.D., a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist, co-author of Understanding Mental Illness and co-founder of Healthy Mind MDs. "Engaging in pretend play may very likely help your child deal with anxiety and stress as well as help your child feel more secure, safe and reassured."
There are ways for parents to support pretend play and use it to help gauge children's emotional temperatures — and in ways that don't involve transforming into a superhero sidekick for hours on end, weeks at a time.
In the beginning, it's easy to support pretend play.
Children start to play pretend between 14 months and 18 months of age, and luckily they don't require much to get started. At this stage, "parents can support pretend play by having plenty of interesting items handy to encourage imagination and creativity, for example, cardboard boxes, building blocks, a family of dolls and dinosaurs," Dr. Barnes says.
As they get older, "Let your child decide what they want to engage in," says psychologist Reena Patel, L.E.P., B.C.B.A. "You can have family theater nights with a box full of supplies. Your child can build props, their clothing and any items they need to share their story. Or go outside and use nature as the toys and let your child create a scene. Finally, model what it looks like to pretend. Loosen up your structure and allow for some clutter and chaos. Be an animal or character. Children watch what we do and learn skills from our non-verbal cues. Let’s encourage this more."
And while parents have control over most of the family dynamic, pretend play is one area where they should take a backseat. "Allowing children to be the director and producer —the 'boss' — is critical to imaginative play," Dr. Housman says. "With this creative control, children are able to express themselves in an uninhibited manner and explore their interests in a supported environment. In turn, this feeds their curiosity and stretches their mind to promote an interest in exploration and further learning."
Many of the "red flags" parents see in their child's play is nothing to worry about.
For starters, parents may wonder if acting out plots of TV shows and movies mean they're getting too much screen time and aren't developing their own imaginations. "Most of the children I work with know every word of the movie Frozen and repeat them often," says Tasha Brown, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist. "I would only be concerned if your child is unable to generate language or ideas."
The use of weapons like toy guns and swords is another area of parental concern, but their appearance in play isn't troubling in and of itself. "This does not mean that they're going to be violent, and it's also developmental appropriate," Dr. Brown says. "Children very often explore these types of play." She adds that parents can set boundaries around this type of play, or redirect children to other areas, if it seems to be too much.
There are a few actual worrisome signs to watch out for. "Pretend play that involves recurring themes of violence, aggression or inappropriate content may be a red flag that warrants further evaluation," Dr. Barnes says. "Another possible red flag is if your child suddenly loses interest or no longer seems to enjoy pretend play." Using pretend play to get out of things consistently, or finding that pretend play is interfering with their ability to learn and socialize appropriately, could be another concern, says Stephanie A. Lee, Psy.D., of the Child Mind Institute.
If children keep coming back to play they find worrisome, "Parents can inquire with minimal attention about where kids are learning about these type of themes to ensure safety and appropriate monitoring," Dr. Lee says. "Parents can also discourage less preferred themes by reacting with minimal attention and enthusiastically encouraging alternative or prosocial themes."
If you're feeling pretend-play fatigue, there are some ways to take part that are less draining.
First of all, know you're not alone. "I very often hear parents say that they do not enjoy their child’s pretend play," Dr. Brown says.
She finds it helpful for parents to schedule and block out five or ten minutes to really focus on pretending. "This way you know your child is getting your attention and can expect it daily," she says. "This may also help limit the amount of time you're fully engaged in the play. Your child is free to engage in pretend play without you, but this will let them know they'll get it from you at some point." For this strategy to work, parents really have to focus all your attention on their children during those short bursts of play (no cell phones).
Parents can also outsource it to someone else. "Enlist the help of other family members — older siblings, grandparents — to join in on the play," Dr. Barnes says. If parents have the luxury of using a babysitter, that might translate into some extra playtime for your child.
And if there's no one else to take on sidekick duties, while parents shouldn't direct pretend play, there's nothing wrong with steering it in a preferred direction "If there's a specific theme or activity you enjoy or think you can tolerate more — you're a better customer at the store than you are a dog at the farm, for example — think about creating a brief time a few days a week when you make yourself available to set up the fake grocery store," Dr. Lee says.
Knowing the stages of pretend play can help parents know what's coming.
While every child is different, most pretend play develops along this pattern, according to Patel:
- 14 months – 18 months: "This is where you see play based on every day, familiar activities," she says. "This is also where children perform one pretend action away from themselves and usually with an adult or doll."
- 19 months – 22 months: "Pretend play emerges based on everyday common activities. An example would be when a child uses a spoon to feed their stuffed bear."
- 2 years – 3 years: "You start to see emotions being included, verbal planning and sequencing of several actions within a theme," Patel says. "Multiple steps are included in this play. For example, a doll is fed with a spoon, then a napkin is used to wipe her mouth and then the doll is given a cup to drink water."
- 3.5 years – 4 years: "Pretend play is based on events a child has seen or heard about, but not personally experienced," she says. "Parents will see inflections in voice, or baby talk for the doll, and more use of language. Play includes short sequences of activities that are now time-related. At this age you now see non-symbolic items become toys. For example, blocks become cars and wooden sticks become wands."
- 5 years – 6 years: "You see multiple roles: mother, father, teacher," she says. "This is a higher level of pretend play with multiple language tones, use of inference and gestures to communicate."
And when does it stop? Possibly never. "While most kids will substitute what we traditionally think of as pretend play with dolls or action figures with books, art, video games, or sports as they progress through elementary school," Dr. Lee says, "some kids and honestly adults have a persistent desire to continue to engage with imaginary themes through art, theater, creative writing, and so on throughout their lifespan."