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I do a lot of evaluations on toddlers and preschool age children. One of the test items measures the child’s ability to use “pretend play” with kitchen items. Parents often ask me why is pretend play important? Pretend play is a crucial part of your child’s development. It is a language skill that helps your child grow cognitively, socially, and emotionally.

Many times, we think the most important thing for our children to do is use a lot of words (vocabulary development) and use them in a clear manner (articulation skills); However, pretend play has an integral role in helping your child expand their knowledge of narrative language, problem-solving skills, abstract thinking and creativity, and provides for new social interaction experiences.

Often, pretend play activities are two-fold; your child can learn how to interact and respond appropriately in a variety of contexts, while teaching them lots of new vocabulary! It also allows for your child to open up her mind and express herself creatively in endless possibilities. And, pretend play has been some of the sweetest, most fun and magical moments I’ve had with children.

We often use pretend play at Jenny’s Speech and Learning Clinic to help develop and expand vocabulary, work on social skills, narrative language, and some of our skilled speech therapists have worked in some articulation practice!
Pretend play can benefit children during the ages 2 ½ to 6 or 7 years old. Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman writing in Psychology Today helps explain the value of pretend play in his article: The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development.

At Jenny’s Clinic, we’ve developed 8 ideas to encourage pretend play at home with your child:

1. Play grocery store, picnic, or restaurant with play food items
Got leftover fruit baskets, grocery bags, and a cart/stroller? You’ve got a grocery store! Take some materials around the house, and you can have your child bag groceries, scan items, buy items, cook up meals, and take turns serving the food. Cotton balls make great marshmallows or for a bowl of ice cream scoops. Pom poms (variety of colors) can be berries, and old egg cartons and empty cereal boxes can represent themselves on your “grocery store” shelves. After all the purchasing of items is finished, lay out a blanket on your living room floor for a picnic with your newly purchased goods!

2. Dress-up
Not just for girls! I know Target has aisles full of pretty little princess dresses and tiaras, but boys can dress up, too. This is a great way for a child to pretend to be someone else, try on a new persona, and be silly! No trunk full of dress up clothes, no problem! Kids love walking around the house in mom’s noisy high heels, or dad’s oversized sneakers, or a fancy tie for going to work! Let them try out different outfits from mom and dad’s closet (or maybe big brother or sister’s closet, if that’s allowed), be different characters, and play grown-up sometime.

3. Playdough
Playdough is a great experience to be able to build a variety of different things, from making cookies to little pizzas, to crazy animals with big beaks and curly tails. Let your imagination soar with all sorts of ideas with playdough, and the beautiful thing about playdough, is that it’s easy to create, take apart, and re-create lots of new things. Playdough usually comes with fun sets of tools to cut, stretch, mix, and twist playdough, but you can just as easily use things you have in your kitchen with playdough; rolling pins, forks, wooden spoons, cookie cutters, etc. and you can make all sorts of fun creations.

4. Baby doll (or other dolls)
The thing I love about baby dolls, Barbie dolls, or any other doll is that it gives a child a sense of responsibility, and this type of pretend play will bring out characteristics, such as compassion, responsibility, and many skills baby doll is doing, are good skills you want your child to learn how to do (feed self, go to the bathroom independently, get dressed). You can teach body part vocabulary, clothing names, actions that baby can do, and you can also teach different emotions. You can even use props such as play food, bandaids for boo-boo’s, and a blankie for baby doll to do different parts of her daily routine.

5. Stuffed animals go to the Vet
Similar to the baby doll, stuffed animals often spark compassion and caring traits in children. Your child will want to make the animal feel better, and here you can teach about going to the doctor, things the doctor might check when your child or the animal is feeling sick.

6. Go camping and have a campfire
My sweet nephew inspired this idea; he dragged us to the middle of my sister-in-law’s living room, and set up a “campfire” of pillows. He had us all sit around and take turns telling ghost stories! His stories always began with, “once upon a time…” We had so much fun making up sill monster stories, and even pretended to roast marshmallows and hot dogs over the fire. If you have glow-in-the-dark stars, you could go “stargazing” once it is nighttime.

7. School time
This was a favorite of the kids that I used to nanny when I was in college. They would gather all of their stuffed animals or action figures, and line them all up in front of their art easel. The two of them took turns playing teacher, handing out “assignments” with crayons and little pieces of paper from their mini notebooks! One of the children was school-age, so she really got into detail, with parts of the day like recess and reading time.This was especially fun for the younger one, since he was not yet in school, but always wanted to go with his sister.

8. Build a fort
This one is probably my personal favorite; a fort built in the living room can lead you to magical places; it can be the bear cave, grandma’s house, an airplane to take you to the other side of the world, secret hideout for spies; the possibilities are so endless. Plus, there is something completely enchanting about hiding underneath piles of pillows and blankets, where it’s dark and somewhat secretive. Bring in some pretend play items like a tea set and have a tea party, some library books, flashlights, or (if you’re feeling brave), have a little snack in the fort. Fruits and veggies all of a sudden taste so much better when you’re hiding out in the fort!