When my first son was little, I was so proud of my parental accomplishments! My husband and I had raised a polite little boy who was fun to be around. We beamed when he could name letters and numbers, could spell his name and could count at a very young age.
When he started going through testing for what turned out to be Autism, one of the first questions that I was asked at every single assessment was if my son used imaginative and pretend play. It hadn’t really occurred to me that he wasn’t playing pretend or using his imagination because we were just so focused on the obvious learning! Imaginative play is a crucial part of a child’s growth and learning, and usually comes organically for most children, but since my son never initiated it, it hadn’t been on my radar!
Children who are on the Autism Spectrum have a harder time with pretend play. Life for my son is very literal. He understands letters and numbers because they are concrete. He loves puzzles and books, but had a very hard time grasping pretend play. The most he would do is push a toy car and make engine noises.
His teacher and I started working with him in different situations. We started by playing with the toy cars on a rug with roads on it, then incorporated a parking garage that he could expand his play. We got him play kitchens and dress up clothes. We watched movies and would re-enact scenes (one of his fun quirks has always been reciting entire movies, we used that to our advantage!). I would take him for walks and look for pine cones and sticks and let him tell me what they were. I loved when he would tell me that a pine cone was a pineapple and took a pretend bite, or when his stick became a ninja sword.
He had the hardest time with the dress up clothes and still does, but we keep trying. It’s so fun to dress up and act like someone you aren’t and that kind of imaginative play is a hard stretch for my literal little guy. So we started with dressing up like things that he knows. The first thing he wanted was Spiderman. I’m not sure why that was his first choice but we were happy to test the waters if he was willing! He tried on a Spiderman mask at a friend’s house and wouldn’t take it off! He wasn’t necessarily acting like Spiderman (he really didn’t know who Spiderman was) but he seemed to be more daring and silly with the mask on!
We then moved forward to a Fireman costume. What little boy doesn’t love the fire engines, the fire hydrants and those amazing heroes who use them?! He loves his Fireman Costume! He even uses the megaphone to tell me “It’s going to be ok!” because that is what he imagines a fireman would say! We put out pretend fires all over the house and neighborhood with his extinguisher, and he feels like a hero.
Imaginative and pretend play is so important for a child’s development. It is just as important as learning the academics because it teaches them skills they will need as they grow.
Pretend play allows the use of language that might not be used otherwise by your child. If you listen in as your child takes part in imaginary play with his toys or friends, you will probably hear some imitation of mom, dad, friends, and teachers. It teaches your child that words give him or her the means to reenact a story or movie. This process helps your child to make the connection between spoken and written language, and that is a skill that will later help them learn to read!
Social and Emotional Skills
When your child engages in pretend play, they are experimenting with the social and emotional roles of life. Through cooperative play, they learn how to take turns, share responsibility, and creatively problem-solve. When your child pretends to be different characters, they learn empathy-such an important moral life lesson. It is normal for children to see the world only their own point of view, but through cooperative and imaginative play, your child will begin to understand the feelings of others. Your child also builds self-esteem when he discovers he can be anything just by pretending!
Thinking/Problem Solving Skills
Pretend play provides your child with a variety of problems to solve. When two children play pretend together, they sometimes fight over the same clothing or role. When your child is outside and needs to find something to use as their magic wand, that is problem solving! They will use some serious thinking and problem solving when they play pretend, something we all use in our adult life and that will set the groundwork for their future.
While teaching the academics is so very important, don’t forget to let their imaginations run wild and even spend the time to play pretend with your kids. Allowing pretend play to blossom now will benefit your child in the long run!