To Prep Your Child for the Real World, Let Them Pretend!
The CREATE Framework
T = Time for Imagination
- Give your child open-ended toys that require imagination and can become more than one item. For example, instead of a puzzle that only has one “right” solution, try building blocks that can be used to create a variety of different structures.
- Join in your child’s pretend play! Take the role they assign you, whether it’s little sister, assistant chef, or rocket scientist. Studies show parents’ participation in their children’s pretend play is linked with social competence.
- Resist the pressure to schedule your child’s every moment. Providing time for unstructured free play encourages them to engage in rich pretend play, which builds executive function skills.
- Providing explicit instructions to be creative is helpful for everyone but particularly for older children. As children age, they may experience peer pressure to fit in and not stand out. Inviting children to “be creative” prompts imagination and originality and inspires them to develop more novel or unique ideas.
One of the most joyful experiences as a parent is watching your child use their imagination to turn a cardboard box into a castle or spaceship or pretend to be their favorite scientist or superhero. Pretend play may appear to be a simple activity, but research supports the vital role of this type of play in child development: it allows children to generate and enact original ideas, to practice self-regulation and perspective taking skills, and to get along with others.
Several studies demonstrate a strong relationship between pretend play, the creation of imaginary playmates, and inventing make-believe worlds in early childhood with later creativity. In a study with elementary school students, researchers found that the quality of imagination and fantasy in early pretend play predicted divergent thinking (i.e., generating many possible solutions to a problem) over a four-year period, and later showed that the same relationship persisted into high school with a subset of the original group. Another study found that fourth graders with imaginary companions were more creative on two out of three measures of creativity.
While pretend play tends to be associated with very young children, studies highlight the importance of encouraging pretend play and the creation of imaginary companions in children of all ages.
Research also shows that adults can create environments that encourage children to develop real-world skills through make-believe scenarios and companions. One study looked at how relevant aspects of children’s early environments related to the development of executive function, a consistent predictor of important academic and life outcomes. Executive function skills include memory, self-control, focus of attention, and planning. After collecting information from parents about their 6-7-year-old children’s typical schedules, researchers found a positive relationship between the amount of time children spent in unstructured activities and their self-directed executive function. These findings strongly suggest that providing children with leisure time where they can imagine their own goals and decide on their own what actions to take gives them practice with real-life skills.
In today’s fast-paced world, daydreaming, sometimes called mind wandering, is often seen as a waste of time. However, research has shown that taking time out to focus on something other than the task at hand can help people get out of ruts and make unusual connections that lead to creative solutions. Keep this in mind the next time you see your child staring out the car window.