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Fantasy and pretend play. Encourage kids to explore and discover more

What is your favorite fairy story? Did it have goblins, wizards and witches?

Fantasy play has been part of all our childhoods. We imagined goblins lurking in corners and wizards who could cast magical spells and knights that could slay the biggest fiercest dragons.  While adult life may seem far removed from the fairy tale magical world of childhood, fantasy play imparts many advantages that carry on into our adulthood.

What is fantasy play?

Also known as pretend play, fantasy play ranges from talking to dolls, pretending to cook, playing teacher, and having imaginary friends. Children may offer to serve you a favorite food; they may invite you to a tea party. They may tell you that their bear is hurt or that they saved their doll from a dragon. Fantasy play is a highly rewarding activity that enriches children and enables various skills.

Why do children indulge in fantasy play?

Children can indulge in pretend play to alleviate boredom, to sample the adult world (This injection might hurt you a little dolly, but it is for your good), or even to voice their fears. They are not very conversant with adult methods of communication and may express themselves through fantasy play. This dragon is breathing fire and trying to destroy the castle may mean they are dealing with some troubling situation. The reassurance for the injection that will hurt is likely their way of dealing with unpleasant experiences like a visit to the doctor.

How does pretend play or fantasy play help kids?

Stimulates creativity and imagination: Pretend play enhances cognitive flexibility leading to creativity. Imaginary friends, a conversation with a doll or cooking a meal from the air, all require some imagination and creativity. If you participate in these childhood games you will observe that you can be served cake or pasta or a burger or daal roti and rice, all often with very unusual ingredients, depending on a child’s mood. They are observing what the adults in their lives are doing and putting their twists on it. Pizza’s with fruits, and cake for lunch anyone?

Enhances communication skills: What can you say to a friend who exists only in your imagination? Pretty much everything and the bonus is it enables articulation and communication. A study illustrated that fantasy books enabled better learning for children. One of the reasons it suggests is that fantasy holds the imagination of children, and from this engagement, they learn better as they pay more attention. Dragons and goblins are far removed from humdrum reality and so much more exciting to think about and talk about. Fantasy play also improves vocabulary as they try and explain to others around them what they are engaged in.

Facilitate problem-solving: Will the dragon destroy the castle? How can you save the castle from the dragon? What kind of meal can you make that is more exciting than your mom serves you every day? What do you name your imaginary friend? What do they look like if someone asks?  Pretend play is brimming with possibilities bound only by imagination. The scenarios can vary every time, and there are new problems to think about each time. The cognitive skills that come into play will be useful all through their adulthood as well.

Academic learning is enhanced through pretend play: Albert Einstein has famously said: “If you want your children to be smart, read them fairy tales and if you want them to be smarter read them more fairy tales.” The realms of possibility in fairy tales boggle a child’s mind, and from the concept of flight to invisibility to transformation, they cover endless possibilities and spur the child to think. They learn new vocabulary and even understand numbers.  

Physical development: When you hold an airplane high in your hand and run about pretending to fly, you are strengthening your muscles, you are developing motor skills. Pretend play is not all about the mind and behavior. It’s also about physical skills getting enhanced through that seemingly mundane activity.

Social and emotional skill development: Being a teacher one time and the student the next allows kids to take on different roles and experiment. They learn to lead and to take instructions. They become parts of teams and tell a story together. They learn to empathize and understand different perspectives; all of which facilitate emotional and social skill development. They develop self-esteem and self-awareness through pretend play, all of which is what every parent wishes for.  

How to encourage pretend play or fantasy play?

Let children find their mojo: Overscheduled kids cannot find time for pretend play. When everything is planned and structured until the last detail, you are taking away space for the child to create, to explore, to discover for themselves. Boredom is not always a bad thing. Let kids find ways to amuse themselves through open-ended play.  Boredom leads to exploration and discovery.

Cheer them on:  Encourage them along. If they want to cook, you pretend to eat. If they introduce you to an imaginary friend, you say hello and enquire politely after them. If they slay a dragon, you call them a hero. Encouragement will help them to open up, explore, and communicate.

Give them the tools: Apart from time and place, kids need the right tools. Simple household items, boxes, pots, and pans work well, but some books and toys facilitate open-ended fantasy play. Let them enjoy reading about goblins, wizards, animals who speak and also play with castles and dollhouses.

Fantasy play has been part of every childhood since forever. As parents, we can encourage them to engage in such play by letting them take the lead and do what they will. Just be there to support them as they pretend that the towel is a cape and they are flying in the air like superheroes. See their imagination soar and watch them grow! Happy parenting.

July 29, 2019 — Suchismita Pai

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