Akron occupational therapists

Akron Occupational Therapists on Importance of Pretend Play

Our Akron occupational therapists often remark that we “get paid to play.” That’s because from the outside looking in, a pediatric occupational therapy session can look a whole lot like we’re “just playing.” But this overlooks the reality that play – just generally – is a huge part of child development and the mastering of everyday life skills. It’s actually considered the primary “occupation” of children, because it’s central to their physical, social, and emotional development.

There are many different kinds of play, of course – structured, social, and pretend. All are valuable for different reasons. Here, our Akron occupational therapists are focusing on pretend play (also sometimes called imaginative play).

What Exactly is Pretend Play?

Pretend play – which usually takes place between the ages of 18 months and 6 years – is defined as a complex cognitive skill necessitating the integration of many other skills.

Kids use their imagination in pretend play to act out common (or fantastical) scenarios. You may see them pretend to bake a cake or shave their face or talk on the phone – or be captain of a pirate ship.

When kids engage in pretend play, they’re sharpening their social, emotional, and cognitive skills. The inability or difficulty engaging in pretend play can lead to participation restrictions later in the child’s life – which might ultimately lead to trouble with fulfilling typical social roles. So it’s a big focus for our Akron occupational therapists – even if it looks like we’re “just playing.”

Before pretend play, kids usually engage in sensory-motor play, as they’re trying to make sense of their bodies and how it relates/operates within the world around them. It’s actually an important first step to imaginative play. In occupational therapy, we include a lot of sensory motor play before we work our way into pretend play – because each skill builds on the other.

Some of the ways pretend play boosts child development:

  • Cognitive skills. A child needs to rely on their memory and critical thinking skills to problem solve as they’re recalling details of stories or past experiences that they’re then acting out.
  • Social skills. If a child is playing with a friend, they’re acting out a scenario together. There’s turn-taking and empathy-building and problem-solving and reading social cues and using language. Even if a child is pretend playing alone, they’re still working on social skills. They’re using their vocabulary to describe their actions, explain various events, and pretend to talk to others or respond to certain imagined scenarios.
  • Emotional regulation. As your child acts out these situations, they’re needing to identify how they – and other characters or actors – are feeling in their various roles. Recognizing that others have a different perspective from ours – and recognizing what that might be – is huge for building both social and emotional skills.
  • Mathematics. A child pretending to bake cookies may make note of the numbers on measuring cups. Practicing running a store can involve practicing with fake money. Even if they aren’t doing correct math, they’re still practicing concepts like “more” “less” and “too much” – as well as important spatial concepts like “inside” “under” “over” and following sequential directions “first” “next” “last.”

Akron Occupational Therapists’ Tips to Encourage Pretend Play With Your Child

To encourage your child to work on these skills through pretend play, our Akron occupational therapists recommend:

  • Lean into their interests. Do they love dinosaurs and dragons? Building blocks? Dolls? Start there, and encourage pretending with the things they’re already into.
  • Using materials that are easy. These can include blankets for caps or paper towel rolls for telescopes or a cardboard box for a house or mountain cave.
  • Participate and engage. If your child approaches asking to take your restaurant order or hands you a “phone” – play along! It can be fun for both of you (not to mention, it’s often super cute to see them taking on a new pretend role).

If you have questions, we can help!

Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides occupational therapy to children in Akron, Cleveland, Brecksville-Broadview Heights and surrounding communities. We also offer occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, summer camp, day programs, education services, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email.

Additional Resources:

The Importance of Pretend Play in Child Development: An Occupational Therapy Perspective, March 2000, British Journal of Occupational Therapy

More Blog Entries:

Akron Occupational Therapy Approaches to Sensory Processing Disorder for Kids With Autism, Feb. 11, 2023, Akron Occupational Therapists’ Blog