Why Is Make-Believe Play Important?

princess castle

Importance of pretend play to a child’s early development

We all remember playing pretend when we were little, whether it was building a princess castle out of sofa cushions or pretending the floor was shark-infested waters that we had to navigate in order to find the treasure.

Make-believe is a part of childhood and an important part at that. It may look like child’s play from an outside perspective but there is actually a huge amount going on when your child is playing pretend, and there are many vital skills that they are learning and developing through this type of play.

Studies have shown that pretend play has a number of positive effects including:

  • Language development.
  • The ability to recognise that other people have different perspectives.
  • Increased divergent thinking (the ability to come up with different ideas).
  • The development of important social skills such as self-regulation, communication and empathy.

As well as providing a safe environment in which children can express dreams, fears, emotions, ideas and difficulties that feel separate from reality.

Make-Believe and Language Development

Make-believe play can have a huge positive impact on language development in children. Sometimes known as symbolic play, this type of play often involves object substitution or the use of symbols. For example, children will use a stick instead of a sword, a banana instead of a phone or a cardboard box instead of a spaceship.

This ability to see an object as a symbol for something else is also needed for language, as words are symbols that we use to represent out thoughts and ideas.

Imaginary play also offers a perfect opportunity to increase your child’s vocabulary. There are lots of words that can be used all the time in play that rarely crop up in real life, such as pirate, castle, dragon, magic, etc as well as descriptive words you might use in the kitchen, terms you might hear at the doctors and the use of tenses.

Another benefit of make-believe when it comes to language development is the realisation that we use words to tell a story and that that story can be anything we wish. This link between the written and spoken word has been linked to improved reading ability as children get older.

Pretend Play and Cognitive Development

Cognitive development is all about how children think, discover and figure things out. Building the ability to create an imaginary world inside our heads is what makes books come to life when we read them, even as adults. Having to figure out a way to avoid the bubbling lava that has replaced the floor uses the same part of the brain we need to solve problems as adults. And without imagination, nothing new would ever get invented.

Playing also develops a child’s ability to self-regulate, knowing that they can’t hit their friend with their sword as they are just playing, and is usually the first time children get to discover that people may have thoughts or opinions that differ from their own. This ability to imagine what other people are thinking or feeling is a pretty vital social skill and it all starts with play.


Next Up: Make-Believe Play Ideas