The Importance of Pretend Play
"Imaginative play is a precursor of conceptual thought – in which possibilities are explored upon the inner 'stage' of a child's imagination." – Erik Erikson
To all the flash card fans and fact drillers out there, the statement I am about to make may shock you: For young children, developing imagination is an important way to gain knowledge.
You read correctly – and I'm not alone in this quest to elevate imaginative play to its rightful place alongside knowing ABCs or numbers or reading before the age of 3.
The Value of Pretend Play
Many experts agree on the lifetime value of developing imagination. Yale University child development psychologists Dorothy and Jerome Singer say, "A critical feature of adult life is our ability to create stories we tell ourselves about possible futures and ways of attaining our goals. Children need to get an early start in such inner storytelling and mental manipulation of various situations."
Through play, children express the world inside them and order the world outside. Children's minds are amazing when at work, especially those minds that don't know the "right way to play." Those children find paths to discovery and understanding, marching to the beat of their own drummers, and along the way they open the door to independence, self-confidence and unlimited potential.
Open-ended play encourages this highly individual experience and is fueled by imagination. Toys that leave room for a child's input and creative imagination are the ones that they return to over and over again – they are captivating, enduring.
It's important to start kids on the right road to imaginative play from their earliest months of infancy. The Singers point out recent research that shows children who are encouraged in imaginative play prove to be more creative a few years later, have a richer vocabulary, are less impulsive and aggressive and often become leaders with their playmates.
Encouraging Pretend Play
While real "pretend play" doesn't begin until 17 to 18 months of age, you can help get your baby ready for symbolic play with simple peek-a-boo toys and jack-in-the-boxes. Even "farm animal" books read to children encourage them to imitate animal sounds. All these types of play convey to a child that you don't need to have the real object in front of you to have it in your mind. Eventually this leads to a toddler feeding her Madeline doll with pretend food, to the preschooler drawing a picture of an event that happened last week or last year, to the school-age child writing about what they want to be when they grow up – then to the adult who is capable of having foresight, vision and the ability to think outside the box.
When looking for toys that will help your child develop imagination, look for those that lead to open-ended play, not only allowing for, but rewarding the child's creativity. It is precisely this type of imaginative play that many child development experts recognize as helping prepare a child's mind for learning facts and figures as well as preparing his or her mind for life.