The Power of Pretend
by Ellen Metrick, National Lekotek Center
I’ve been in the working world for a good stretch of time and although my office attire is often a touch casual, there are occasions when there‘s a demand for me to attend important functions and power-up my outfit. Tucked into one section of my closet is what I term my “power suits.” I think we all have our own version of a power suit –those outfits that make us feel professional, polished, pretty or powerful.
I read about how presidential candidates pick out their power suits and power ties before important debates or political rallies. I suspect we’re all guilty of dressing up, just like a young kid, when we need a boost of confidence or to assume an important role in our lives.
Halloween is a great time to engage a child in pretend play. This focus — fueled by swords, crowns, magic wands and fairy dust — holds a lot of developmental potential for kids and some coping strategies as well. Let’s explore make-believe and the meaning it might have for young kids!
Pretend Play is a way for children to learn a lot more about themselves and those around them. There are a number of reasons this can happen:
Kids can act braver if they feel empowered by another identity especially a commanding one. Super heroes have incredible powers and for many kids, especially those who have special needs, being in a strong position can feel pretty good at times. A shy child can assume the role of princess; a smaller boy becomes Spiderman with all this incredible abilities. A child who is quiet can find his voice as he growls dressed as a lion with costume wrapped around him. A child who has limited mobility can pretend to fly with the cape draped around his shoulders. A girl who can be fearful is a witch and the one who others fear.
Whether monsters or monarchs, kids in costume can feel more in control. Just like acting on a stage, pretend play allows children to step out of their ordinary roles. This can be the seed for developing empathy for others and seeing things from another perspective. Like a little girl soothing her baby doll afraid of the dark, children can try on the role of protectors, adults, caregivers and those in control. Later in life those characteristics can hopefully be internalized within the child and they begin to mature.
Pretend play also inspires interactions and the creation of plots, storylines and shared visions among kids. Within group pretend play, roles are assigned and switched around: cowboys one minute, Indians another. Kids play the role of teachers in one drama and student in another expanding their viewpoints along the way. They create stories and scenes and see the world not as it is but as they collectively imagine it to be. Living rooms becomes castles and backyards wildernesses as the stories evolve. This ability to create a shared vision prepares children to lead and inspire others later in life.
Under the mask of another identity, children can sometimes work out interior dramas and find ways to cope and conquer. Many therapists find working with puppets is a way for children to process buried emotions and work through fears or difficult issues as they project their voice onto the puppets. This pretend play process can make dealing with troubling conditions easier for kids and less threatening to explore.
Finally pretend play sparks creativity in kids. With schools focusing on memorizing facts and figures, it is healthy to allow kids to depart from the real and engage their imaginations. According to educator and play researcher Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, “A child today has to learn more than just the facts; they have to put those facts into a creative framework that is going to solve the problems of tomorrow.”
In summary, pretend play, costumes and role playing can help a child: develop confidence, gain perspective, explore role changes, work out inner dramas, encourage language/negotiation/development of narratives, and spark creative thinking.
So pull out those ghoul teeth, cowboy hats, skeleton costumes and monster masks and let pretend play work its magic on children this Halloween and beyond.
…Oh, and dust off your power suit while you are at it.