Imaginative play, or what you might call pretend play, usually seems like just a fun way to spend time with your baby. But, in fact, it has a lot of benefits. It stimulates the senses, creates opportunities for exploration and creative thinking, and helps your child to develop key skills vital for intellectual and emotional growth as well as social success.
The first signs of pretend play emerge around 12 to 18 months. You might notice your 18-month-old try to feed their baby doll with a spoon, or pick up a block and bring it to their ear as a phone. Early forms of pretend play are largely solitary in nature. While your tiny tot may enjoy the company of friends, a closer look at their play will tell you that each is under the spell of a separate fantasy while they are alone.
It is not until after their 3rd or even 4th birthday that your child’s pretend play becomes truly interactive, although they will continue to enjoy solitary pretend play activities with miniature toys (e.g. dolls houses, castles and small trucks)
The years from three to six are generally thought of as the golden years of pretend or imaginative play. That’s because at no other time in your child's life will they be so immersed their little world of fantasy.
You can add to this fantasy world by providing them with props and toys. In the initial stages, children need realistic props such as miniature figurines, kitchenware, medical play kits, and gardening tools to get them started and to sustain their play. As they get older and more comfortable with this form of play, unrealistic props are equally important (e.g., cardboard boxes, sticks, cartons). It is also good to include open-ended objects like coloured blocks as these extend children's imagination with unlimited possibilities.
Older preschoolers will enjoy engaging in role-play and love to dress-up. Many role-plays involve simple imitation of adults; this helps your child to better understand what the world of adulthood is all about. If you are invited to participate (which at times you will be), join in! Take direction from your child as this is their world and they will relish the opportunity to be in-charge. But be careful as to not over-involve yourself. Just follow your child and improvise on the go. Let them have control over the major details of their story, and stick to asking simple questions and showing enthusiasm. When adults are overly intrusive in leading children's play, many of the intrinsic benefits are lost.
As for the developmental aspect, pretend play will enhance your child's self-confidence, self-awareness, and self-control. It stimulates children to think creatively, and improves memory, language and perspective-taking skills.
Imaginative play is the form of play that is most social and has the greatest impact on the development of key skills important for children's success with peers. When playing creatively with their friends, your child learns to cooperate and compromise, to participate in social activities, and to understand social relationships. This empowers them to voice their own opinions as well.