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Pretend play

The importance of make believe and dress-up games for toddlers
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Many toddlers these days are tech-savvy, able to master the TV remote, computer games and hand held consoles from a very early age.

Despite living in this world of gadgetry experts believe children should also be encouraged to have fun in the world of their own imagination.

Kids love playing dressing-up games, role-play and make-believe and there's a lot of research which suggests pretend play really benefits children as well.

What is pretend play?

A big, empty cardboard box to an adult means a trip to the recycling tip. To a toddler it's a ship, a palace or a racing car.

Small children often prefer the box that an expensive gift comes in rather than the present itself. It gives them a chance to use their imagination.

Children love dressing up and playing a role. They might like the ready-made outfits of their favourite cartoon character but they'd probably be just as happy with an old tablecloth and some of mummy's shoes.

A study for the BBC in the UK in 2009 found that nearly half of children play make-believe games every day. The research also suggested that one in five young children have an imaginary friend.

It's hard to put a figure on how popular these make believe friends are.

Dr Karen Majors, a senior educational psychologist, says: "The most recent US studies suggests that by the age of seven, 65% of children have had an imaginary friend."

The benefits of make believe

Research suggests pretend play makes children better at problem solving and improves their language development. Some studies suggest it can improve academic skills in later life.

Dr Karen says: "Research shows pretend play is important for children's social and emotional bonds. It can develop language skills, the beginning of empathy and the quality of friendship."

When you are taking turns in role-play games, it encourages co-operation between children and social development.

It definitely builds social skills. Parenting expert and author Sue Atkins says: "Children will begin playing with inanimate and non-threatening objects, like cuddly toys, bricks etc, so they are practising their interactive skills. Later, playing with other children will build on this foundation as they learn to share, take turns, assert themselves and begin to empathise with others."

Small children by nature are self-obsessed but when a child's pretending to be someone else it helps them empathise with others and understand that other people have feelings too.

Pretend play can also help thinking skills in pre-school children. If two girls both want to be the princess, a solution has to be found! Rather than both having a temper tantrum or a fight, they may decide that one wears the crown, the other wears the dress and they are princess sisters?

Sue says: "Lots of research has shown that brain connections develop during periods of play so it is vital for emotional, physical and intellectual development."

She says that parents don't always understand the importance of play however, and in today's competitive world, the temptation is to stop your children "wasting time" and to put the time to what they believe is more constructive use.

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