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The Cognitive Benefits of Pretend Play, Part 1

The Cognitive Benefits of Pretend Play, Part 1

July 29, 2021

The Cognitive Benefits of Pretend Play

Part 1

A child's imagination takes the reins of playtime, and the 

cognitive benefits will follow. 

By: Jodie V. & Sally Z.

Jodie is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, FORT Pure Play Founder & Mom of three boys.

Sally is The Director of Lower School, Curriculum Developer, 1st Grade Teacher & mom.

Children learn best when they are active and engaged. When we think of the tools needed to succeed in school, we think first of the three R’s, but there are important tools that come before, and after those, and even help children to develop as Readers, wRiters, and ‘Rithmaticians. In play, children develop the very foundations for learning and knowing. Free play gives children a chance to practice and comprehend what they've experienced, solve problems, and create their own stories. Language drives pretending and language skills grow as they are used to name, explain, and create.

At the very foundation of literacy is symbolic thought

 We use symbolic thought when we use a word or an image to represent something. When the spoken word “dog” is applied to our furry friend, your child is using symbolic thought. Later, the written word will come to represent the furry friend. Children must use symbolic thought in order to pretend that a simple object is something else. When the child pretends that a block is a piece of watermelon, or that they are a doctor, they are using and developing their symbolic thought, which is a necessary precursor to reading and writing. As their imaginative play grows more complex, so will their use of language.


Take a moment to enter into the pretend play of a young child..

As they play, they use language to sort and categorize.  As they set up a dollhouse, they make decisions and often speak them aloud. “This goes in the kitchen. This goes in the bedroom.” Even a very young child will quickly begin to understand that certain furniture and items belong together. As a child gets older and play becomes more sophisticated, so do the categories they employ when they play. 

For instance, a child begins by creating the world with a few simple pieces and the soft friends that may inhabit this world. They imagine a picnic.  A child spreads a cloth on the ground, and then decides which friends will join the picnic.  These groups will guide the decisions about which friends attend the picnic. They use language to create their pretend world. 

  • Who are these friends? Children may create a system to give their stuffed friends names.
  •  Are there families? Children may create groups of siblings, cousins, and friends to replicate and explore their own sense of belonging in the world. 

The longer and more frequently children have opportunities to pretend, the more their systems and ideas will develop.

They may wonder,  how old are these friends? As children think about the age of each soft friend, they are considering different factors, deciding which ones are most important. They may consider physical things such as facial features and clothing which suggest an age range. They also consider their own feelings about each toy. Size may become important later, as children organize the ages of all dolls relative to one another. In this way, children create their own systems of categorization and organization.

 As the children grow and the game develops, the systems become more sophisticated. They may create activities for their dolls, clubs with age groups, skill sets, and achievements, similar to scouts, school, or sports. They will create names, structures, and rules to give their pretend play life.  As the play progresses, children will encounter flaws in their systems and adapt or revise so that play can continue.


These systems that children imagine and create are created primarily through language and storytelling.

Storytelling, in addition to its many other benefits, is critical to the development of literacy. When they tell their own stories, children are also stretching their vocabularies. They do this in several ways...

  • The first is by taking on the roles of characters in their stories.

When children pretend to be a professional adult, they will expand their vocabulary by using words that they would not normally use. Pretending to be a doctor or business owner or a librarian, the child will draw on their experiences and use the specific language of that domain, thus incorporating and familiarizing themselves with it. 

  • They also challenge their vocabularies by describing the situations they are imagining, and by using words to describe how a simple object represents and functions as something else.

 For example, if they build a town out of blocks, they will explain the layout of the town, pointing out important buildings, houses, train station, grocery store, school, and park.

An expanded vocabulary will make reading and writing easier.  

With a larger vocabulary, a child reads with greater ease. They can also better express their ideas in writing.  Throughout their elementary school years, children will be asked to write fiction and nonfiction stories. Often, when a child is faced with a blank piece of paper, pencil in hand, they don’t know how to begin. But a child who has spent an abundance of time immersed in worlds and stories of their own creation will be able to draw from the well of their imagination and share their ideas in writing. Imaginative play has direct benefits, and indeed is critical to, the development of language and literacy.




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