Let’s Talk About Pretend Play!

by Laura Ironman M.S., CCC-SLP 

Right now, everyone is experiencing creativity in a brand-new way, attempting to keep everyone sane while remaining safe at home social distancing. One form of entertainment that is great during quarantine and any other time of the year is good old-fashioned pretend play. Some know it as “make believe”, others simply call it “using your imagination”. Pediatric therapists call it a great tool for working on language and other developmental skills! 

Let’s define it!  

Pretend play is any sort of play where you use objects or actions to symbolize other objects or actions. This includes activities from role-play of real routines such as cooking and playing “house,” all the way to letting out the true fantasy world and becoming a knight slaying a dragon. 

The benefits  

Pretend play has many benefits, including promoting flexibility, practice for turn taking and cooperative play and, of course, assists with language acquisition. The way pretend play addresses language is very universal, meaning all components of language can be addressed in one activity.  

The Language in Pretend Play  

When engaging in make believe, kids are given models of new vocabulary. Say you’re on a pirate ship – you can learn new words together like ship, sails, hook, peg leg, eye patch, treasure, dig, sail and so on. You also can work on learning new adjectives and ways to describe the situation such as smelly, salty, mean and greedy. These words are all great descriptors of a pirate! It gives the opportunity to teach new vocabulary to children in a way that doesn’t feel forced.  

Engaging in pretend play with your child also gives them the opportunity to work on social engagement in a less stressful away. Working on taking turns, staying on topic, keeping appropriate volume and vocabulary based on who you are pretending to be are all parts of pragmatic language! Pragmatic language refers to the social language skills that we use in our daily interactions with others. Pretend play is a great opportunity to teach your child these skills depending on the situation, who you are and how you engage with communication partners differently. For example, when playing house, ask your child “how does the mother talk to the baby? How does that compare to how the pirates talk to one another? How is that different from talking to a police officer?” These are great examples of how language changes in different situations!  

Below I have listed some great pretend play scenarios to help build language: 

Cooking: 

I love to pretend cook with kids because it is a functional activity and has a lot of specific vocabulary. It is a great way to work on sequencing steps, following instructions and “recipes.” 

Anything Royalty:  

Does your little one enjoy being a King/Queen/Prince/Princess? This type of pretend play is a fabulous opportunity to practice changing their tone and expressing themselves in the most regal way possible! They can also get creative about what kind of “laws” they decree with that power – ice cream for dinner every night, no bedtimes, etc.   

Rock Star:  

Let your child rock out as they pretend to be a famous singer or maybe you’re the famous singer and they are in the band! This one is especially fun if you want to try to make up songs yourself. For the kids who are a little more advanced, you can practice sound awareness by practicing rhyming words when creating songs!  

Zoo:  

It is a classic idea to pretend to be different animals, but this type of pretend play offers limited language if all you and your child are doing are barking like dogs! Try to challenge the whole family to become a whole zoo, or maybe the zookeepers working with the animals! Being the whole zoo allows for more vocabulary opportunities, as well as simply teaching to match sounds to animals.