If you have an imaginative preschooler at home, chances are you’ve seen how easily children can transform the living room into an elaborate jungle, turn paper scraps into currency, or re-purpose the remote control as a navigation stick for a spaceship.
Pretend play (or imaginary play) refers to a type of play where children accept and assign roles, and then act them out. For a long time it was considered fun but with limited educational value. However, more recent studies have found how pretend play can support early childhood development, including early literacy skills.
Here are some ways you can support your preschooler’s early literacy skills through pretend play:
Add functional print into the mix. Functional print includes things like newspapers, menus, signs, coupons or labelled items. By surrounding your child with functional print during pretend play, you are creating an environment in which your child can interact with print as adults do. Your child will see how texts are used in a variety of different ways. One study showed that classrooms rich in functional print material inspired more literacy-focused pretend play, which resulted in children achieving higher literacy levels.
Re-enact stories. When your child acts out or retells the stories you’ve read together, they’re demonstrating and enhancing their comprehension skills. Encourage your child to act out a story in the right order and take on different roles. This will help them gain an understanding of narrative structure, and consider how different characters have different personalities and motivations.
Choose books that enhance pretend play. Observe what your child likes to do in pretend play. Do they like to pretend to be a doctor, a firefighter, a dancer, or a dinosaur? This gives insight into their interests, which will help you choose books that not only capture their attention but also their imagination, equipping them with more knowledge, vocabulary and material to use in pretend play.
Provide a variety of symbols. During pretend play, a doorstop could become a slithering snake. A slip of paper could become money. By assigning a purpose to different props, your child develops an understanding of symbols. Opportunities to create and use symbols will help your child use other symbols, such as letters and numbers. As they get older, provide writing materials like pencils, crayons and paper to help them create their own symbols to which they can assign meaning.
Role-play with your child. Role-play is a fun and powerful way to expand your child’s vocabulary and encourage their language development. Role-play scenarios involving different characters can introduce new related vocabulary words and encourage your child to use expressive language. For example, if you pretend to be a teacher, include as many related words as possible (e.g. classroom, students, blackboard, desk, books, learning, reading).
The most important thing to remember during pretend play is that it should be fun. Fun matters. It’s what motivates your child to stay engaged, curious, and inventive during play, which enables them to reap a wealth of educational benefits in the process.
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