The Real-World Benefits of Imaginary Play: What It Can Teach Your Child

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“Role-playing is good practice in understanding how others think and feel.”

Ann Lagges, Ph.D., H.S.P.P., a psychologist specializing in Child and Adolescent Assessment and Treatment and Pediatric Psychology at Indiana University Health, explains how pretend play nurtures five key components of your child’s development. Here, her expert insights.


Whether your child is pretending to be a chef, a parent, or Harry Potter, he’s honing a vital social and emotional skill: the ability to look at the world from another person’s point of view. “Empathy doesn’t come naturally to little kids,” says Lagges. “Role-playing is good practice in understanding how others think and feel.” If your child takes on the part of teacher when he and his friends create a pretend classroom, for example, and his “pupils” act rowdy, he comes to see how frustrated a teacher might feel when kids misbehave.

Social savvy

Something as simple as holding a tea party with her dolls gives your child the perfect opportunity to work on sharing and taking turns, while setting up a pretend restaurant or store helps her learn how to behave and communicate with others in specific situations (like ordering food from a waiter, asking a salesperson for help, etc.) “Kids sometimes introduce conflict into imaginary play, which allows them to practice problem-solving as well,” says Lagges.

Language skills

If you’ve ever listened to kids role-play, you’ve probably been surprised to hear them use vocabulary you didn’t think they knew. “If your child is playing doctor or school, for example, he’ll often repeat words and phrases he heard in those particular scenarios—ones he might not have had a chance to use in everyday conversation,” says Lagges. Pretend play gives him the opportunity to practice using new words as well as more sophisticated sentence structure (since he’s often repeating adults’ speech.)


Imaginary play encourages the kind of inventive thinking that can benefit kids throughout their lives. “During imaginary play, children learn that objects can be used for a variety of different purposes,” says Lagges. This in turn can boost their ability to problem-solve: “If your child wants to build a fort, for example, he might decide that a blanket would make a good roof and that a set of chairs will hold the roof up.”

Emotional processing

When kids are worried about something, it often comes out in pretend play. “One of the ways adults work through an issue is by talking to family and friends about it, but little kids can’t do that yet,” says Lagges. So if your child is afraid of storms, for example, don’t be surprised if a “tornado” strikes while he’s playing house, forcing him to rush his family of stuffed animals to the basement for safety. “Creating a scary situation during play allows kids to handle it successfully, which helps boost their confidence,” says Lagges.

-- By Jessica Brown

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