The Emotional Benefits of Pretend Play - Maileg USA

The Emotional Benefits of Pretend Play

Pretend play helps children develop into confident, creative, healthy people. Children experience anything they can imagine when they pretend.

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.

Pretend play is inspired by real life, stories, television and toys (so choose shows carefully!). Children go on adventures, take care of babies, go to work, and have picnics. They face down bullies and celebrate birthdays. In play, children process their emotions and understand the world around them.

They act out their feelings, explore new ones, and relate to the feelings of others during pretend play. They explore sadness, fear, love, anger, and empathy through dialogs and stories of their own creation. The elaborate worlds they create allow them to process and regulate all sorts of feelings in their active, emotional worlds. Through open-ended, imaginative play, children develop self-regulation, and empathy.

When a child picks up a toy that does one specific thing, the toy directs the play. Take a racetrack for example. When a child takes out a race track and a box of cars, they will set up the track and watch the cars race. They may have the opportunity to design the track, select the cars, and conduct a competition.  They may feel excitement or disappointment depending on the outcome. This is a fun pastime, and not without some benefits to the developing child.

However, when a child sits down with a basket of stuffed animals and dolls, the inspiration for the action comes from the child rather than from the toy. And if a child has access to other materials, from household items to beautiful props for play, they can use these to build a pretend world according to their needs and ideas.  The world that the child creates naturally mirrors the emotional life of the child. The child can enter into this world to explore situations and emotions. 

The beautiful and simple toys at Maileg invite the child to create a world where it is safe to explore situations and emotions.

 The familiar objects, such as tables, chairs, and strollers, with soft lines and whimsical colors, take the child from the real world to a parallel world where anything can happen. The tiny objects attract the child’s attention and inspire them to tell their own stories. It is in this safe world of the child’s making that they can safely experience a range of situations and respond to them emotionally.

The dollhouse invites a child to explore anything that may happen in a home. If there is a new baby in the home, a child is likely to explore those family dynamics.  A child can also use the warm and inviting dollhouse to explore rules,  boundaries, and consequences.  They might pretend to be a “naughty” child who defies the rules, or they might try on the role of the parent, who creates and  enforces the rules. 

They can also process fears as they pretend. With the tent and a sleeping bag, the mice are on an adventure. They face danger when a bear rumbles into the campsite and rummages through their food. On a rafting trip, one of the mice may fall out and need to be rescued. The child has an opportunity to play the part of the mouse in the river or the one in the raft who finds a way to rescue their friend. They may be the bear or the mouse in the tent. They may even be both! Through play, the child may explore feelings of anger, love, or fear. They can also practice solving problems, and experience confidence as well as success or failure.

By playing and processing so many emotions in play, the child learns self-regulation, or how to cope with their feelings and respond appropriately. They will be better able to handle stressors and disappointments because they have rehearsed those feelings. They can also imagine alternatives and solutions when they do encounter problems in real life, which helps them to remain calm and to adapt. By experiencing a rich life in the realm of imaginative play, the child develops the tools for self-understanding, communication, and self-regulation which will support emotional health throughout their lives.

 By providing your child with the materials and time for open-ended, imaginative play, you give them important tools for emotional health and happiness.

Imaginative play helps to promote tools for positive relationships with others as well. When children pretend, they learn to have empathy.  They do this when they take on the point of view of each different stuffed animal or doll.  A child may play both characters engaged in a disagreement. They might be the rebellious child and the frustrated parent. They may be the hungry bear and the frightened camper. They can learn to consider another person’s experience and feelings by pretending.  Developing empathy as a child will help them to have stronger friendships. They will be more compassionate and understanding, and more likely to be patient with others as well as with themselves.