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How can pretend play help children cope with the challenges of life?

By 10/07/2023No Comments
pretend play
by Suzy Duxbury
Principal of Dramatis

In today’s increasingly stressful, polarised and tech-dominated world, play is more important than ever. As a society, we’re still assessing the long-term impact of the pandemic – with some research suggesting the global event has undermined children’s confidence, sense-of-self, and their emotional and mental wellbeing.

The power of play, and particularly pretend play, can be harnessed to help children develop the skills they need to cope with the challenges of life.

But what is pretend play, how does it help build these life skills and how can parents ensure their children benefit?

What is pretend play?
Children have always been instinctively drawn towards play but it wasn’t until the 1890s that its wider benefits (beyond a form of entertainment) were officially recognised.

Thanks to the early pioneering work led by educators and child psychologists like Fredrich Frobel, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, the importance of play in child development is now widely acknowledged. Pretend play in particular, is noted for its ability to improve the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional wellbeing of children.

Pretend play is when children take on roles and act them out as a way of exploring (consciously or subconsciously) different situations and emotions. Classic examples children naturally gravitate towards include playing ‘mummies and daddies’, ‘doctors and nurses’ or ‘monsters and robots’.

As well as being a lot of fun, pretending to be someone, something or somewhere else, also helps children to express themselves, share thoughts and ideas, and better understand their feelings and emotions.

Children can engage in pretend play alone or with parents, but it is most effective in building life skills when done with a group of other children.

What are life skills?
The World Health Organisation defines life skills as being the attributes required to “deal well and effectively with the challenges of life”.

Whilst there is no definitive list, they are broadly recognised as being:
• Problem solving and decision making.
• Creative and critical thinking.
• Communication and interpersonal skills.
• Self-awareness and empathy.
• Coping with emotions and stress.

How does pretend play help children develop life skills?

Problem solving and decision making
At the heart of pretend play there is always a problem to be solved (some lost treasure to be found or a monster to confront!). By creating their own imaginary scenes and characters, children learn to understand different types of problems, consider different solutions to them, and then take action to address them.

Creative and critical thinking
Pretend play forces children to think on their feet and respond creatively to a range of imaginary situations. This improves their ability to think ‘outside the box’, find new solutions and generate new ideas whilst assessing information and understanding its relevance.

Communication and interpersonal
Taking on different roles requires children to share their thoughts and ideas, listen and respond to others, develop their vocabulary, and take on appropriate body language and gestures. This improves their ability to get on and work with other people, as well as effectively communicate messages.

Self-awareness and empathy
Playing out/simulating scenarios that children have limited personal experience with, helps them to better understand their own thoughts and feelings whilst building empathy and understanding for others.

Coping with emotions and stress
Creating and acting out imaginary scenes is a lot of fun and the physical element generates beneficial endorphins. Pretend play can transport children away from their daily stresses but also enables them to play out difficult situations and emotions in a safe environment. Whether they choose to use it for escapism or cathartic release, pretend play can help children to cope with problems and recover from setbacks.

How can parents encourage pretend play at home?
Whilst pretend play is most effective at building life skills when children are engaged in the activity with their peers, parents can use it to help ignite creativity at home.

When pretend playing together, it’s important that parents allow their child to “be the boss” as giving children creative control allows them to express themselves in an uninhibited way and to explore their ideas in a supported environment.

Here are three ways you can encourage your child to use pretend play at home:
1. Give them a scenario
Give them a character, a setting and an end line that they must finish their scene with and see what they come up with.

2. Give them a prop
It can be anything around the house (a bit of coloured material, a colander, or an empty trinket box). Ask them to make up a story about the item – telling them it can be absolutely anything (apart from what it really is!)

3. Make a film
Give them a character and a mystery to solve. Get them to create various scenes (in different locations in the house) and record them on your phone. Then merge the videos together to make a film than you watch together (add popcorn for extra cinematic effect!)

How can parents encourage pretend play outside the home?
Ultimately, to harness the full potential of pretend play, children should work in groups, with their peers.

Whilst children can play with friends at the local park or in the playground, it is during drama classes (under the guidance of a professional and within a structured framework) that they will really reap the full benefits of pretend play.

Working together to develop scenes and characters requires children to share thoughts and ideas whilst listening to and negotiating with others. The skills they develop will help them to become more confident, more resilient, and more empathetic so they can thrive in life.

You can find out more about local drama schools offering extra-curricular classes and workshops in the ABC Magazine Directory.

Suzy Duxbury is Principal of Dramatis, a Sussex based drama school that harnesses the power of pretend play. For more information about their drama classes and holiday workshops, please visit