When we got up this morning, my nearly three-year-old daughter announced that she was a baby porcupine and declared me the mama porcupine. She explained that her quills were pokey and that I should be careful. As I became more fully awake, I tried to wrap my head around this new role. But right when I was ready to fully assume the role of mama porcupine, I was then told that I was a mama eagle. This went on and on and on.
For young kids, the world of pretend is endless. Little kids make sense of the world through their imaginations. But guess what? So do we! When young kids regularly inhabit their imaginations, it’s practice for the important games of pretend we play throughout life. Here’s how our imaginations help us develop important skills at any age:
Process & Prepare for Life Events
Young kids use their imaginations to process and make sense of life events. After my daughter broke her arm, we spent many hours playing “hospital” and caring for stuffed animals with a wide variety of broken limbs. In addition to processing challenging events, pretending can help kids prepare for upcoming challenges. For example, before going to the dentist to get a tooth pulled, it can be helpful to play games where characters go to the dentist. This gives kids a chance to preview what the experience will be like, helping to calm their nerves.
As adults, this is essentially what we do when we plan for an upcoming event. If you have to give a speech to a large group, you’ll likely spend time walking through the speech in your head and “pretending” to deliver it. Anticipating what might happen helps us to feel more prepared.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And how else to do this if not through pretend? Taking on the roles of different characters helps us to imagine what it might be like to be different people (or, in my daughter’s case, porcupines). As mentioned in this article from Psychology Today, “an awareness that one’s thoughts may differ from those of other persons… is closely related to imaginative play.”
Throughout life, it’s helpful to step outside of ourselves and imagine others’ experiences. Developing empathy helps us to act with compassion and an awareness of others. Whether in the midst of a pretend game or not, take time to ask your child to consider what it might feel like to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Think about your favorite novel — it’s all pretend. When young kids use their imaginations to create magical lands, they are using the very same muscles that the best authors use. Using what they’ve learned about the world around them, the imaginative creators are able to detach and create a whole new world in their minds. Why wouldn’t we want to foster this skill?
On the flipside, the act of reading fiction gives us a chance to empathize with the characters in the story. Reading fiction often allows us an opportunity to step into someone else’s life and imagine the world through their eyes.
When we use figurative language, we’re playing pretend. For example, if we say “The moon is a light bulb,” we know that the moon really isn’t a lightbulb. But the act of comparing an object to something else helps us to understand the object more. This kind of examination allows us to explore the world around us by thinking about relationships, analogies, and comparing and contrasting (in teacher-speak, we call these “higher-order thinking skills’).
Solve Math & Science Problems
Math and science are all about pretend. Don’t know the answer to a problem? Make a model and figure it out. A basic step of the scientific method is the “provisional hypothesis,” where we assume (pretend!) something is true, then do tests to prove whether it really is true or not. Albert Einstein, along with other physicists, did “thought experiments.” For example, he would pretend he was running beside a train traveling at the speed of light and use this experience to reach accurate conclusions about the nature of light.
When solving math problems, “x” plays the role of mystery numbers as we try to create models to make sense of particular situations. The idea that pretending can help get us closer to understanding reality is essential to confidence in math and science.
Playing pretend as kids helps us to be imaginative thinkers as adults. Throughout life, embrace pretend in its many forms. Reality can only get us so far—we need inventive imaginations to bring amazing things to the world.
Lily Jones is a mother, educator, and founder of Curiosity Pack. Holding an M.A. in Education from UC Berkeley, she was a kindergarten and first grade teacher before moving into teacher education and curriculum development. Her mission in life is to inspire people to love learning. Download her top five teacher tricks for parents here!