My toddler has turned his attention to being a milkman. He takes a real milk can [purchased by his enthusiastic father], puts it on his bicycle and asks everyone in the house how much milk they would like to buy. He also keeps a bag of change with him. He’s tried his hand at being a doctor, a carpenter, a barber, and this is his latest fascination.
It is common to see children engage in pretend play or dramatic play where they pretend to be someone else or something else. Their day-to-day life experiences and their imagination provide raw material for this endeavour.
It’s good to pretend
In the book, What to Expect—The Toddler Years, authors Heidi Murkoff, Arlene Eisenberg and Sandy Hathaway talk about imagination, a vital ingredient of pretend play. They call it the fertile force that “enables a young child to be as resourceful as an engineer, as inventive as a scientist, as visionary as an architect, as innovative as a designer, as fanciful as a poet and as caring as a parent”.
They support its occurrence quoting some of its advantages: It relieves children of boredom; it is a good way to promote verbal skills, strengthen social skills, improve problem-solving skills and deal with fears and problems.
Rupal Patel, a parent and child counsellor from Mumbai, adds “Besides developing imaginative ability, pretend play helps to build up the attention span of the child since it requires him to be focused on a particular thing”.
Helps discover your child
Mumbai-based clinical psychologist, Shefali Gandhi, is all praises for such play. “Fantasy play is also an emotional release for pent-up emotions within the child. They end up feeling a lot more relaxed. In pretend play, the child sometimes has to get into another person’s shoes. This indirectly helps him understand the other person’s point of view. This develops thinking as well.
Besides, this kind of play lets an observant parent know about the frustrations, insecurities and talents of the child and also the child’s opinions about significant people in his life.” she says. Well, aware parents can use information gauged from such play sessions to introspect [and improve] their bonding with the child.
Geeta Joshi, a clinical psychologist in Mumbai, agrees that pretend play is indicative of child dynamics. “How a child talks or behaves in a pretend play session is reflective of what is happening in his life.
Even if everything is going fine, pretend play can bring forth the aggressive tendencies in the child, if there are any. Both positive and negative traits of the child can be identified, ” she explains. She adds that in psychotherapy, pretend play is often used with young children to understand the untold underlying overtones of a situation.
Parents’ role in the play
Here are some ways how you encourage your child to engage in pretend play:
Create a pro-pretend play environment
Parents have to first acknowledge that this kind of play is beneficial to the child. He thus deserves time and space for the same. Don’t cram too many activities in his day, he must have free time for dramatic play as well. Also, don’t dismiss it as unimportant and silly. Even if you don’t openly say it, children get the vibes.
Play with them
Gandhi suggests that parents could try and initiate pretend play directly. A simple suggestion such as “Let’s play teacher-teacher” should do the trick. Let the child choose the role he wants to play. “Parents will realise that the child often chooses the more authoritative role. He may also want to interchange roles often,” she says.
Moreover, if children engage in pretend play, do play the role of the supporting actor, until your child wills otherwise.
Parents should realise that their participation in pretend play should be by invitation only. It is your child’s private world and you have no right to be a trespasser. You can be an onlooker, but, don’t interfere with your suggestions and demands. If the child is playing well by himself don’t interrupt. If you do the talking and guide the play session, the child’s natural imaginative tendencies will be curbed.
Shower tools and props
Patel suggests providing simple toys that would enable creativity to come out. “Even if you just give them blocks, they can make them into houses, bridges, castles and such other things,” she states. It is a good idea to have a box full of props that can make a play session interesting.
Old clothing items, sunglasses, caps and puppets are few items that could be put in. Also, have kits such as a doctor’s box, barber’s kit or carpenter’s tool box and the like. Make it available to him based on the interest of your child, to make enacting more realistic.
If you see your child playing doctor-doctor, try and get books and toys that will give him more information. This will make his make-believe play more interesting the next time around. If he is pretending to be a carpenter or plumber, take them to watch these helpers in action. Whenever possible, see that you can add on to his existing knowledge. It will add value to the play [and educational benefits as well.]
These moments of carefree play will not last forever. Before your child is grounded with the realities of life and becomes ‘big’, record his make-believe world in video, photographs or words. Video seems to be the best. They will love looking at themselves later.
A cause for concern
Patel also emphasises that if overdone, there is a cause for concern. “While it is important for children to learn to play by themselves in their own fantasy world, it should not make them turn so much inwards that they refuse to socialise”. She adds that balance is key.