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Theatre Family

More than make believe

Why children need pretend play.


Published: 9 Sep 2016

Time taken : ~10mins

Fantasy is serious business

At home, you may have observed your child turn bunk beds into ships and when you go out, he hops from one coloured tile to another on the pavement to avoid falling into the fast-moving river. Young children often assume other identities or immerse themselves in different scenarios. This is termed pretend play, or dramatic play.

Eminent cognitive psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky have written extensively about how pretend play aids in the development of the child. Dr Cynthia Lim, an early childhood specialist and adjunct lecturer at the National Institute of Education, explains that pretend play involves fantasy, make-believe and symbolism and taps into the creativity and imagination of a young child. This link has not escaped the attention of theatre practitioners who create works for young audiences. As a result, elements of pretend play have found their way into theatre for young audiences with productions such as Rochee: The Friendliest Cockroach, Fatimah and her Magic Socks and Koko the Great as part of the PLAYtime! series.

Bruno Cappagli, artistic director of Italy’s La Baracca – Testoni Ragazzi, shares that even though make-believe might be a place of fantasy, it has a very real and necessary place in a child’s world. Cappagli is also the actor-director of Little Red Riding Hood which was staged at Esplanade as part of Octoburst! – A Children’s Festival in 2016.

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Image credit: <i>PLAYtime!</i> at Esplanade

The benefits of pretend play

It is easy to dismiss pretend play as mere child’s play but it is more fundamental to the development of soft skills in children than it may seem.

1. Cognitive skills

When playing a game of make-believe, children get ample opportunities to practise symbol-making, which is the use of one object to stand for another to create their own meanings. This simple act is crucial in helping children understand the idea of symbols and metaphors which comes in handy in formal learning.

La Baracca harnesses this natural inclination with Little Red Riding Hood’s bare bones set—three white panels are manipulated to suggest different objects such as a book or a tent. The minimal set encourages young audiences to imagine and fill in the blanks themselves.

Pretend play also simulates scenarios and problems in a safe environment. Dr Lim explains that when children engage in pretend play, their minds are actively thinking through solutions for problems they encounter in the scenario or role.

2. Language skills

When a child takes on a make-believe role like that of a teacher conducting a class, the child turns into a different character. This newly-minted teacher will assign homework, tell off misbehaving students and help you learn how to count. The child’s mannerisms will change and in that moment, he becomes the teacher.

Needless to say, role-playing gives children the opportunity to practise language skills. Even though most of the phrases and roles are learned through mimicking adults, pretend play allows children to practise what they have heard or seen. Dr Lim says that when children talk through their actions, the opportunity arises for them to use new vocabulary associated with the role they are acting out. When they talk more and in lengthier sentences, these actions eventually enable children to express themselves better.

3. Social and emotional skills

There is a strong link to suggest that pretend play can foster social and emotional skills in children. By stepping into another character’s shoes, children develop empathy and an awareness of others in that scenario rather than focus solely on themselves.

This can also occur when children are completely immersed while watching someone become a different character in a story. In Little Red Riding Hood, Cappagli recalls seeing children getting engrossed in the story. Some empathise with the girl whose life is in danger while others relate to the hungry wolf who is just looking for a meal.

According to Dr Lim, getting involved in pretend play gives children opportunities to learn to develop better communication skills and teamwork as well as turn-taking. In Hello Yasmin, a PLAYtime! production directed by Ian Loy, Esplanade’s Theatre for Young Audiences Associate Artist, children gather brown sponges which were made to look like clumps of soil to help Yasmin’s grandfather regrow his favourite potted plant. The children interact, take turns and are very much involved in the quest for Yasmin’s desire to make her grandfather happy.

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Try re-enacting plays like <i>Bunny Finds The Right Stuff</i> at home, with your own twist. Image credit: <i>PLAYtime!</i> at Esplanade

Make believe at home

Want to get the most out of pretend play? It is possible even at home. Why not try these activities with the kids?

  • Provide a props box - Dr Lim encourages the use of props as it can help children be more engaged and increase their attention span. Fill the box with toys like tea sets or doctor kits, or even objects that are not usually used as toys like cardboard boxes, blankets or plastic bottles.

  • Try guided storytelling - Encourage children to tell a story using props and prompts. This is a good way to help them to think of new worlds and roles to explore while practising their language skills.

  • Re-enact scenes after watching a show but give it a twist of your own - Take turns being characters from a children’s theatre production and ask the kids what-if questions to present them with problem-solving opportunities.

  • Just like how children are truly immersed in role-play, Cappagli emphasises the importance of being real and believing in the role you take on when engaging children in pretend play. Children feel and respond best to authenticity, he says.

    I can pretend to be a whale, a pirate or a child but I must believe it to be real, because I am sure that the child is always looking for the truth.

    Bruno Cappagli, artistic director of La Baracca – Testoni Ragazzi