Pretend play: Serious learning and important work for a child

    Little child girl plays superhero. Child on the background of sunset sky. Girl power concept
    Playing superhero is actually important work to a child. iStock.

    “Mama, you’re the baby. Buckle up in your car seat.”

    I half look up from the laundry I’m folding. “Hmm?”

    “Mama! Buckle up for safety! I am driving us to the airport,” says my 3-year-old, who has my full attention now.

    I still can’t get over when he mimics phrases I use with him. I dutifully sit on the couch and let him strap me into my invisible seat belt. While there are plenty of times throughout the day that I am only half present, pretend play gets my full attention almost every time.

    Parents of young children are no strangers to the word, “No.” Before I became a parent, I was sure I would almost never use the word — it’s so authoritarian. Now that I am the mother of a 3-year-old, the idea is a fond (and laughable) memory.

    We have to use “no” often and in many forms: “Don’t touch that; stay by me; not this time; inside voices please; put that back.” I have to consistently remind myself that every aspect of his life is controlled. He is learning that there are boundaries to what he is and isn’t allowed to do, and that can be frustrating … for both of us.

    Little boy in a cardboard airplane
    “For children, play is serious learning,” Fred Rogers said. “Play is really the work of childhood.” iStock.

    So, when he comes to me in pretend mode, I am a willing participant. He needs, at least for a moment, to be fully in charge of a situation. When he empties the Tupperware cupboard and tells me he is cooking my favorite meal, I resist the urge to tidy up.

    When he puts on his doctor’s coat, I am sure to call him “Dr. Jack” before asking him to complete a task. I will play fetch with my kid for an hour while he pretends to be a dog. The autonomy he feels during these times so clearly inflates him with confidence, and it is a joy to see.

    It is still amazing to me to watch my son’s brain work through different scenarios. The other day, I heard him telling his baby doll that she needed to eat her vegetables so that she could grow big and strong. He also made sure to point out that his baby’s shirt is “rojo.” (We’ve been working on our Spanish colors.) Through play, he is constantly practicing what he’s learned.

    This learning through pretend play extends itself to social situations. When he plays with his friends, they so easily enter each other’s worlds. Watching Jack take on different roles is something I’ll never tire of. I watch him try on different personas. The other day, his classmate asked him to take her hand while she pretended to fall. He quickly entered his superhero mode and saved her. I continued to watch them navigate different roles together, solidifying an already strong friendship.

    The late Fred Rogers of “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” once said: “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

    As always, Mr. Rogers got it exactly right. When I watch my son play, I am watching him learn. I am watching him explore and assert himself. Through his play, I am learning so much about him. So, next time he hands me his banana and tells me the phone is for me, I will gladly answer: “Hello?”