by Tina Manzer
Imagination is more important than knowledge,” said Albert Einstein, “for knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
We imagine every day. As adults, imagining helps us solve problems, enjoy novels, understand how customers feel, and create ideas to promote our businesses. It’s a practice we have been honing since we were born. Our industry is made up of imaginers; we understand its importance and promote its development with positive products every day. For many of us, encouraging a child’s imagination is not just a job, it’s a calling.
When we watch kids imagine and play, the process looks simple, but it’s not. Through pretend play, children learn and grow in many different areas that help them thrive as adults.
Here are just a few of the skills developed through imaginary play, outlined by Scholastic.
Social and emotional
Children who engage in pretend play are actively experimenting with the social and emotional roles of life. It helps them learn to take turns, share responsibility and creatively problem solve.
When they pretend to be different characters, it helps them “walk in someone else’s shoes” and develop the moral skill of empathy. As kids mature, they begin to understand the feelings of others. Role-play also helps build self-esteem by helping them discover they can be anything they want to be, just by pretending.
Children often “talk” to their toys and their friends when they engage in imaginative play. By listening closely, parents will hear their own words and phrases in the patter – words they didn’t know their children had heard and learned! Pretend play helps children understand the power of language, and that words give them the ability to reenact a story. All of it helps kids make the connection between spoken and written language, and will eventually help them learn to read.
Pretending together offers children some problems to solve, like what to use to create the walls of a fort, or who is going to be the patient and who will be the nurse. The solutions require the same thinking skills they’ll use in every aspect of their lives now and forever.
A bit of roughhousing among kids can look alarming, but some researchers in early brain development say that it’s actually good within a monitored situation. It helps develop the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that regulates behavior. Rather than teach children to act out or become aggressive, roughhouse play can help them know how and when this type of play is appropriate.
Language skills development is such an important by-product of pretend play that the Hanen Centre in Canada – a not-for-profit focused on helping children develop the best possible language/social/literacy skills possible – trains parents, educators and speech-language pathologists on techniques to stimulate children’s pretend skills. The charitable organization’s global reach includes children who have or are at risk for language delays, those with developmental challenges such as autism, and those who are developing typically.
From “Learning Language and Loving It – The Hanen Program for Early Childhood Educators,” here is a list of the ages and stages through which pretend play progresses. (Children with developmental delays may progress through these stages at a slower rate, points out the Hanen Centre.)
12 to 18 months
During this stage, children perform one pretend action at a time on themselves, such as pretending to eat, drink, or sleep. They tend to use toys that look realistic, like plastic food, or real-life objects like a kitchen spoon.
18 to 24 months
Here, they perform simple pretend actions on toys or people using realistic-looking toys. Examples include feeding a doll with a toy fork or making a toy airplane “fly.” Children also imitate familiar adult actions, such as pretending to talk on a toy telephone.
24 to 30 months
Series of familiar actions
Children at this age are learning to combine words together to make little sentences, and to combine pretend actions together. By now, they can pretend to perform a series of actions related to a familiar routine, like the steps involved in eating or going to bed. For example, the children may pretend to pour cereal in a bowl, add milk, and serve it to a doll. They may use less realistic objects, as long as they perceive them to be similar to the real object. A toy ball could be used as a pretend apple to feed a doll.
30 to 36 months
Series of less-familiar actions
At this stage they may pretend about going to the doctor or being a waiter at a restaurant. Children pretend without an object at this point, like their hand is a cup and they drink out of it. They can also substitute objects that do not resemble the “real thing,” like pretending a block is a garbage truck.
3 to 5 years
Role play with other children
Children pretend about imaginary themes now – things that don’t really exist or that they haven’t experienced yet in real life. Themes may include pirates, castles, and superheroes. They start to pretend with other children; each one taking on different roles. Realistic objects and toys are not needed as children can now pretend using gestures, mime, and unrealistic objects.
Language often drives the play at this stage. Children explain their roles and use language to act it out. A child pretending to be a doctor might say, “I’m the doctor, you be the patient, okay? Where does it hurt?”