This subject can actually get quite complex, because we are delving into the inner workings of the developing brain, with billions of neurons. However, as much as we have to learn, we do know some things. I will try to break down this subject of how pretend can be beneficial for development.
Everyone knows that kids pretend. It’s often considered a frivolous, useless activity. I find this a curious conclusion. Why would kids all over the world, no matter the culture, engage in pretend play if it was so useless? Why are our brains wired to do this if it is so devoid of value?
Have you ever considered the reasons why children engage in pretend play, or “pretense”? Well, cognitive researchers have, and the findings are interesting:
1) Children pretend in order to learn the ability to represent a “strategy map” (if you will excuse my liberal use of that term). Instead of being truly “in” the situation, they can learn to think many steps ahead. It is basically like practice for the problem solving machinery in the brain.
2) Pretense can develop these problem-solving skills in the absence of performance based stress. Think about having consequences to your own safety and the expectations of adults always “weighing” on your decisions. You are most likely going to always pick the “safest”, most familiar solution. You are likely to not be very creative in this situation. But in pretend play, you can be anyone and you can be anywhere!
3) Pretense can even help kids develop empathy, by being able to picture themselves in someone else’s shoes.
4) Pretending can deepen kinetic understanding (a term I will coin here). Pretending, literally, to move with someone else’s patterns and rhythms can promote a much deeper feel for a movement, or what we might call “second nature”.