3. “The importance of Pretend Play”

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.”
– Mr. Rogers

I love this quote and I loved growing up with Mr. Rogers. Some of my fondest memories of my youth revolved around make-believe play. What I didn’t realize is that the pretend play my generation grew up on in the 1970s was also very important and beneficial to our healthy development as human beings.

Playing pays dividends by developing our mental, physical, and social
skills. […] Rarely do we deliberately set out to learn by playing. Yet play educates us broadly and deeply early on and throughout our lives. At the very beginning of our lives, we learn language in game-like interchanges with fluent speakers. Later we sharpen our vocabularies with wordplay. W explore the concepts of number and sequence in games. We tune our ears with song, chant, and rhyme. We play with our sense of space and train our appreciation of color with finger paints and computer graphics. We learn to appreciate our orientation, our location and position, and our sense of the space around us by climbing a tree, catching a ball, casting a lure, or jumping a rope. We explore the natural world by scrambling through a leaf pile, snapping a fragrant sassafras stem, chasing an ant with a stick, toasting a marshmallow, or collecting rocks. At play with others, we negotiate our place in the world and sort out our sense of ourselves as we take stock of our capabilities.


Why is the amount of time that children spend playing steadily declining?

While most parents intuitively understand the importance of unstructured play time, studies indicate that there is a concerning decline in the amount of play that today’s kids engage in.

Dr. Ester Entin a pediatrician and clinical associate professor of Family Medicine at Brown University’s Warren Alpert School of Medicine offers a fascinating commentary. She references an article by Dr. Peter Gray, in which he details not only how much children’s play time has declined, but how this lack of play affects emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self control.

Since about 1955 … children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities.

[…] compared to 1981, children in 1997 spent less time in play and had less free time. They spent 18 percent more time at school, 145 percent more time doing school work, and 168 percent more time shopping with parents. The researchers found that, including computer play, children in 1997 spent only about eleven hours per week at play.

Gray defines “free play” as play a child undertakes him- or her-self and which is self-directed and an end in itself, rather than part of some organized activity. Gray describes this kind of unstructured, freely-chosen play, as a testing ground for life. It provides critical life experiences that are fundamental to young children developing into confident and competent adults.

Gray explains that play functions as the major means by which children:

  1. develop intrinsic interests and competencies;
  2. learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules;
  3. learn to regulate their emotions;
  4. make friends and learn to get along with others as equals;
  5. experience joy; and

What are the effects of the decline in play that today’s children experience?

Gray also explores what is interfering with children’s play. He identifies that parents are part of the problem.

It is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer.

Gray also suggests that the significant increases in child, teen and young adult anxiety disorders, depression and suicide that have occurred since the 1950s, may be linked to this reduction in free play.

When parents realize the major role that free play can take in the development of emotionally healthy children and adults, they may wish to reassess the priorities ruling their children’s lives.

As children negotiate both their physical and social environments through play, they can gain a sense of mastery over their world, Gray contends. It is this aspect of play that offers enormous psychological benefits, helping to protect children from anxiety and depression.

Children who do not have the opportunity to control their own actions, to make and follow through on their own decisions, to solve their own problems, and to learn how to follow rules in the course of play grow up feeling that they are not in control of their own lives and fate. They grow up feeling that they are dependent on luck and on the goodwill and whims of others.

Anxiety and depression often occur when an individual feels a lack of control over his or her own life. Gray believes that the loss of playtime lessons about one’s ability to exert control over some life circumstances set the scene for anxiety and depression.

Dr. Gray sees the loss of play time as a double whammy:

We have not only taken away the joys of free play, we have replaced them with emotionally stressful activities. […] [A]s a society, we have come to the conclusion that to protect children from danger and to educate them, we must deprive them of the very activity that makes them happiest and place them for ever more hours in settings where they are more or less continually directed and evaluated by adults, setting almost designed to produce anxiety and depression.


So why is play important and what benefits does it offer our kids?

When children are in charge of their own play, it provides a foundation for their future mental health as older children and adults.

Dr. Entin explains that there are five main benefits of play are:

  1. Play gives children a chance to find and develop a connection to their own self-identified and self-guided interests – by choosing activities and making up their own free play, kids learn to direct themselves and pursue and elaborate on their interests in a way that can sustain them throughout life. […] in school, children work for grades and praise and in adult-directed sports, they work for praise and trophies [….] In free play, children do what they want to do, and the learning and psychological growth that results are byproducts, not conscious goals of the activity.
  2. It is through play that children first learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self control, and follow rules – kids learn that they must exert control over themselves and must, at times, accept restrictions on their own behavior and follow the rules if they want to be accepted and successful in the game.
  3. Children learn to handle their emotions, including anger and fear, during play – In free play, children put themselves into both physically and socially challenging situations and learn to control the emotions that arise from these stressors. They role play, swing, slide, and climb trees [and] “such activities are fun to the degree that they are moderately frightening … nobody but the child himself or herself knows the right dose.”
  4. Play helps children make friends and learn to get along with each other as equals – Social play is a natural means of making friends and learning to treat one another fairly. Since play is voluntary and playmates may abandon the game at any time if they feel uncomfortable, children learn to be aware of their playmates’ needs and attempt to meet them in order to maintain the play.
    […] learning to get along and cooperate with others as equals may be the most crucial evolutionary function of human social play … and that social play is nature’s means of teaching young humans that they are not special. Even those who are more skilled at the game’s actions … must consider the needs and wishes of the others as equal to their own, or else the others will exclude them.
    [ the decline in play may be] both a consequence and a cause of the increased social isolation and loneliness in the culture.
  5. Most importantly, play is a source of happiness – when children are asked about the activities that bring them happiness, they say they are happier when playing with friends than in any other situation.


Specific types of play must also be recognized as being of particular benefit to children. Dr. Scott Kaufman explains in Psychology today that:

Pretend play is a critical feature of the child’s cognitive and social development.

He points out that systematic research has increasingly demonstrated a series of clear benefits of children’s engagement in pretend games from the ages of about two and a half through ages six or seven and that make-believe games are forerunners of the important capacity for forms of self-regulation including reduced aggression, delay of gratification, civility, and empathy. He states:

An important benefit of early pretend play may be its enhancement of the child’s capacity for cognitive flexibility and, ultimately, creativity.

Projecting personalities and having make-believe interactions with dolls, stuffed animals, toys, or imaginary friends is a healthy way for kids to develop social and emotional skills.

The Greater Good states that dramatic pretend play with two or more children stimulates social and intellectual growth in children, which in turn affects the child’s success in school.

Bright Horizons lists a number of additional benefits to pretend play including:

  1. Children learn about themselves and the world. Dramatic play experiences are some of the first ways children learn about their likes and dislikes, their interests, and their abilities;
  2. Children develop important complex social and higher order thinking skills. Pretend play is much more than simple play activities; it requires advanced thinking strategies, communication, and social skills. Through pretend play, children learn to do things like negotiate, consider others’ perspectives, transfer knowledge from one situation to another, delay gratification, balance their own ideas with others, develop a plan and act on it, explore symbolism, express and listen to thoughts and ideas, assign tasks and roles, and synthesize different information and ideas.
  3. Children cultivate social and emotional intelligence. Knowing how to read social cues, recognize and regulate emotions, negotiate and take turns, and engage in a long-term activity that is mutually beneficial are no easy tasks. There is no substitute for creative and imaginative play when it comes to teaching and enhancing these abilities in children.

And parents should not be concerned about imaginary friends. The Greater Good states that research shows that children with imaginary friends are actually less shy than other children and more likely to smile and laugh in social situations. Supernanny says that imaginary friends are a natural part of healthy child development. Children use their fantasy friends to practice verbal skills, boost their confidence and for role play. Kids with imaginary friends have been found to be more articulate, have improved creativity and higher self-esteem.

Eileen Kennedy-Moore Ph.D. with Psychology Today suggests that:

If your child has an invisible friend, relax and enjoy it!

Ask questions to find out more about the friend. You may learn something about your child’s current interests, wishes, fears, or concerns. You may even want to write down and save your child’s adorable answers! She also recommends that parents go ahead and play along but she warns against taking over. She explains that an imaginary friend is a unique and magical expression of your child’s imagination, so let your child be in charge of it.

What can parents do to increase the amount of play in their family lives?

The competing needs for childcare, academic and athletic success, and children’s safety are compelling. But perhaps parents can begin to identify small changes — such as openings in the schedule, backing off from quite so many supervised activities, and possibly slightly less hovering on the playground that would start the pendulum returning to the direction of free, imaginative, kid-directed play.


Not only should parents encourage play, ensure their child has ample time and opportunity to play and encourage particularly pretend play for their children.

Our goal, as parents, is to stimulate play – not control it

PBS’s Whole Child states that in general, parents must be careful to avoid certain tendencies to control play:

As [parents], we must be careful to avoid dominating the play ourselves. Play should be the result of the children’s ideas and not directed by the adult. Through play, we should try to foster children’s abilities to express themselves. We should also try to help children base play on their own inspirations – not ours.

Fostering pretend play is easy and can be a lot of fun.

A fantastic tool to help parents encourage pretend play their home is to introduce their family to the Kabooter Knomes. Introducing your child and family to the magic of Kabooter Knomes will ignite your child’s imagination and set a course for endless creative play as a family.

Continue to: Creativity IS the Key to Success

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