[12 months to school age] Did you know pretend play is directly linked to your child’s language development?
Let’s look at how, when and why pretend play develops. Whilst there are many types of play, pretend play is concerned with using imaginative-type toys (such as dolls, teddies, trucks and farm animals) and also using objects as something else (for example a block for a phone or car, a stick for a sword or a hand action for a screwdriver). Once a child has learnt enough words and concepts, they will start to yearn to play, to practice what they have seen in the real world. Pretend play is SO important in a child’s development, it has sometimes been referred to as a ‘child’s occupation‘.
How does language development contribute to pretend play skills?
Any time from 12 months old, your child starts to take in a lot more of the world around them. This newly found attention to objects, people and what they are doing helps your child to understand more and more words every day. Around 12 months, they will practice the actions they have seen (for example, attempting to brush their hair, putting a phone to their ear or having a drink from a dry cup) to make sense of their world. This making sense of their world can only go so far using real objects on themselves, before it turns into pretend play, using pretend objects on other toys. This is when the child no longer uses the brush on their own hair, but turns to dolly or teddy and brushes their hair. This is quite a significant milestone in that your child is starting to move away from only seeing the world from their own perspective!
In order to develop more and more play skills, a child’s brain needs to start becoming more and more interested in language. What does ‘sleep’ mean? How is that different to ‘tired’? In what context do you use ‘wake up’ alongside ‘sleep’? Initially, your child will begin to understand ‘sleep’ means ‘cot’ but may later start to act out teddy going to ‘sleep’ because he is ‘tired’. And later sequence another step by ‘waking’ them up.
Another play action might be to give dolly a ‘bath’. Initially, to a young child, ‘bath’ may simply mean ‘wash’. But once they have taken in more of what ‘bath’ entails, they might start to ‘wash’ dolly and then ‘dry’ dolly with a towel.
Just as your child will start to put two words together once they have so many words, your child will start to sequence more than one ‘play action’, once they have so many play actions, such as those listed above. This might be putting teddy in the bath, drying off with a towel and then to bed or creating a story about a pirate with many, many play actions. Sequencing more and more play actions together creates longer and more complex play scenes, as though your child is creating stories in their mind. This is how language development is reflected in a child’s pretend play. And so much so that once a child gets towards school age, they will have the ability to stick with the same play theme and story they have been creating for days on end…if given the chance.
As it should be pretty self-explanatory by now, TV and other branded toys, which have become more and more accepted in today’s society, do not allow for such imaginative play. Let’s say your child has been watching Dora and is given a Dora doll, or Toy Story and is given a Buzz Lightyear ‘doll’. Instead of the doll being a blank canvas to do anything they like with, your child will be more likely to perform actions they have seen on the TV and thus their brain is in no way challenged. The more children rely on TV scripts for their play scenes, the more they have no idea what to do with an ‘unbranded’ toy. This results in a lot of lost skills, as you will see in the benefits of pretend play below.
When should I promote pretend play?
Once your child starts to copy everyday actions such as mowing, putting on lipstick or answering the phone, this is when you can introduce early play. Provide your little one with a few everyday items (a phone, cup, towel) and some ‘characters’ (doll, teddy, little people, toy/stuffed animals) and make suggestions, in very few words. For example, ‘teddy drink?’, ‘phone for dolly’, ‘kangaroo sleep….wake up!’.
What are the benefits of encouraging and making time for my child to play imaginatively?
- It helps your child to learn about feelings and express these when they do not have the words. This may be in acting out ‘bye bye’ and hiding behind a curtain before reappearing. How many times have they watched you say ‘bye’ to them? It may also be a child acting out bullying with their figurines, even if it was only something they saw happen to another child at daycare. You can really learn a lot by watching how your child plays and what they are acting out. Play provides a safe place for your child to express themself.
- It develops problem solving and sequential thinking. The more sequences your child makes when playing, the more their brain is sequencing a ‘story’ and eventually with problems that need to be solved.
- It promotes more language development just by your child having to use concepts, words and phrases they have heard in their day and consolidate the meaning of these.
- It develops social skills and empathy. The more your child takes on roles and needs other children to play alongside, the more your child has to get along with others and see things from their viewpoint. The milestone that is still developing!
Stay tuned to learn about how play themes develop as your child gets older, where doll/teddy play moves to and how object substitution progresses.
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