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Let's Pretend!

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If I had to choose two words to represent the magic of early childhood, they would be: "Let's pretend!" After all, who else but a young child can pilot a bunk bed to the moon, share afternoon tea with a teddy bear, or vanquish aliens as they emerge from a closet? And not only does pretend play offer hours of silly, giggly fun, it also offers incomparable opportunities for children to develop cognitively, socially and emotionally.

So Much to Learn:
Pretend play, says Angeline Lillard, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who's done extensive research on the topic, gives young children the unique opportunity to be in control. "They can do what they're interested in," she says. "They can make choices about what they're going to do and who's going to be what and what's going to be what and how the story's going to unfold."

As their play becomes more advanced -- where they take on different personas -- they begin to see things from the perspective of others, to understand that other people have thoughts and feelings and emotions that drive their behaviors. When they begin pretending with peers, they learn how to communicate effectively and develop problem solving and negotiation skills.

With pretend play, children can work through difficult emotions in a safe, self-directed environment. Playing mommy and baby can help a child come to terms with the arrival of a new sibling. Playing school can make him more comfortable starting preschool. Playing hospital can alleviate his fear of doctors. Playing superhero can help him gain control over his fear of monsters.

Additionally, when children begin to use objects symbolically -- pretending a block is a telephone, for example -- they begin to develop an understanding of symbolic representation. Later, this can translate to reading (the letters C-A-T represent the animal cat, for example) and math (the numeral "5" represents a set of five items). As their plot lines become more elaborate, children develop storytelling skills that can strengthen reading comprehension, and a well-developed imagination is useful for visualizing concepts -- whether historical, geographic, or literary -- when they hear or read about something new and unfamiliar.

The Birth of Pretend Play
It's difficult to tell exactly when pretend play begins, says Lillard, because we can't be sure if toddlers are imitating something they've seen us do or actually pretending to be engaged in the activity. If your little one puts a spoon in her toy duck's mouth, for example, is she simply using a spoon the way she knows it's meant to be used, or is she pretending to feed the duck?

Typically, though, pretend play is thought to begin around 18 months of age. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget believed we can tell when a child is pretending by his "coy smile," says Lillard, and many experts still follow that assumption. However, she adds, "we don't know definitively."

What we do know is that early pretend play most often centers on familiar activities. Young children play house, store, restaurant, or doctor. They pretend to feed a doll, drive a car, talk on the telephone, or put a stuffed animal to bed. "For early childhood," says Lillard, "they'll pretend just with reality and what's domestic because that's what they need to learn about."

Beyond the Familiar
As children enter the preschool years, their themes become more elaborate, moving from the domestic to the more fantastical. They might fly space ships, for example, sail with pirates, become princesses or slay giants. This is also the stage when children typically begin to take on the roles of characters they create and to participate in pretend play with peers, although children with older siblings, and those whose parents play along, often enter this phase earlier.

What Can Parents Do?

Play Your Part: When children first begin pretending, the best thing a parent can do is play along. "Children's pretending is more advanced when they pretend with their parents or with their older siblings than when they pretend alone or with their age mates," says Lillard. Just remember that your child is in charge and be sure to follow his directions. If you're a customer in his restaurant and he serves you pretend pizza with ice cream on top, better to enjoy it and pay the bill than tell him people don't serve pizza that way.

Once your child has progressed to more advanced pretend play, it's often a good idea to step back and let him play alone or with friends. When they first begin to pretend, however, your participation can "bring it up to a higher level and help children engage in it," Lillard says.

Help Set The Stage: "Pretending is facilitated by the kinds of materials one has around," says Lillard, so parents can encourage pretend play by providing the right props. While props need not be elaborate or numerous, early pretending is often facilitated by toys that look somewhat realistic. A very young child, for example, is more likely to talk on a toy telephone than to pretend a block is a phone. "As they get older," says Lillard, "they'll take any object and turn it into a telephone, (but) early on children have trouble overriding the functions that something is supposed to have in order to have it do something else."

Kitchen sets, doctor kits, toy tools, grocery-related props and other toys with familiar life themes are ideal for early "domestic" pretend play. Dolls, toy animals and small vehicles also are useful, especially because they can fit into so many stories and settings.

Does Pretend Have To End?
Most psychology texts teach Piaget's theory that pretend play ends around age 6, when children begin to accept the reality in which they live. But Lillard and her colleagues don't believe it -- and neither would anyone whose 8-year-old still battles aliens in his backyard. Her latest research indicates that children pretend well into their elementary years, and some of the undergraduates involved in her study admit they still pretend "when nobody's looking!"

So go ahead, explore the world of make believe with your little ones. You'll be helping them develop important life skills, including the ability to dream and have fun for many years to come!

At Baby Classroom, we're excited to offer a line of toys specifically designed for pretend play. You can choose from Pretend & Play Snack Shop, School, Office, Animal Hospital, World Traveler, and Gym Bag, as well as Ocean Animals, Jumbo Farm Animals and Jumbo Pets for years of fantastic fantasy fun!

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