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Teaching Children to Cope Using Pretend Play

Kawthar Hameed Abdullah

Ed.D Educational Psychology & Special Education

Using pretend play is a way that children can express and experience feelings in a way that they can control. In a sense, they practice emotions through play. They are in charge of the play environment and of themselves, which puts them in a very powerful position- often opposite of their position when they are overcome by a feeling in daily life.

Parents and teachers, who understand how important pretend play is to the emotional development of children, encourage children to engage in it. They may give them props to get them started, such as the housekeeping corner, or dress up clothes. When children don’t automatically show interest in playing pretend, adults can get them started by playing with them. Adults that see the value of time spent pretending; provide opportunities, space and materials to stimulate imagination; or even get to the bottom of something that may be bothering the child.

Through pretend play children can express and externalize their inner feelings and conflicts and work through them to gain relief from pressures. Though creating make-believe situations, children practice predicting what may happen and play it out. They not only revisit the past ( or traumas) but project into the future by using pretend.

Pretending is important in child development. Through pretend play, children:

  • Learn about themselves and the world. Dramatic play experiences are some of the first ways children learn about their likes and dislikes, their interests, and their abilities. They experiment with role playing and work to make sense out of what they’ve observed. Just watch children playing with dolls to see examples of this. Dolls often become versions of the child himself and are a safe way for children to express new ideas and feelings.

  • Work out confusing, frightening, or new life issues. Have you ever witnessed children pretending to visit the doctor? One child dutifully holds the mock stethoscope as the others line up for a check-up. More often than not someone gets ‘injections’. This is a child’s way of exploring an experience that is common and sometimes confusing or frightening. Through these role plays, children become more comfortable and prepared for life events in a safe way. Children often use pretend play to work out more personal challenging life events too, whether it is coping with an illness in the family, the absence of a parent or divorce, or something traumatic.

  • Develop important complex social and higher order thinking skills. Pretend play is much more than simple play activities; it requires advanced thinking strategies, communication, and social skills. Through pretend play, children learn to do things like negotiate, consider others’ perspectives, transfer knowledge from one situation to another, delay gratification, balance their own ideas with others, develop a plan and act on it, explore symbolism, express and listen to thoughts and ideas, assign tasks and roles, and synthesize different information and ideas. In this creative play description, we could just as easily be describing the skills needed to successfully manage a work project for an adult as describing children’s pretend play.

  • Nurture social and emotional intelligence. How we interact with others is key to our lifelong success and happiness. Knowing how to read social cues, recognize and regulate emotions, negotiate and take turns, and engage in a long-term activity that is mutually beneficial are no easy tasks. There is no substitute for creative and imaginative play when it comes to teaching and enhancing these abilities in children.

  • Create knowledge and skills. Because learning and child development doesn’t happen in discrete pockets of time or during isolated activities, children need opportunities to blend their skills and knowledge together. Pretend play is an ideal way to do this. Think of children playing ‘grocery’ store. They sort by attributes as they group similar foods in sections of the store, use math concepts to tabulate amounts as they determine prices and calculate grocery bills, use writing to communicate by making signs, experiment with shapes and weights as they organize the store, work collaboratively as they assign roles and play together, and much more.

As children create their own worlds through pretend play, they gain a sense of accomplishment. They transform reality and get familiar with it. Children also gain communication skills through pretend play. Children may interact with a doll or another child- telling about their day or just pretending to take care of their baby doll. Children engage in this type of play practice and cooperation in real life and on a pretend level. They can express feeling and emotions through this manner.

Pretend play is also a way that therapist can determine if a child is a victim of abuse. Children that have been physical abused may be violent or aggressive with their toys, children that have been emotionally abused may be seen shouting or saying rude things to their dolls. It’s something both parents and educators should be aware of. A child may have an abusive teacher or parents so all professionals working with children should look for warning signs.

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