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How Pretend Play Advances Self-Awareness

“Mommy, are you ready?!” 5-year-old Charley asks his mother as he rushes into the kitchen one Saturday morning wearing a straw hat, a water bottle around his neck, and clutching a small striped rubber ball. “All set,” his mother replies putting on her own hat. “Oh no!” Charley suddenly exclaims holding up the ball, “I don’t have my shovel. I’m going to find the bones of the dinosaur that laid this egg and I NEED that shovel!” His mother opens the back door, picks up his bucket and shovel, and shows it to him. “No worries Charley, I’ve got the shovel.” He smiles up at her saying “You’re the best assistant ever!”

Defining Pretend Play and Self-Awareness

As you’ve likely gathered, Charley is engaging in pretend play. There are actually quite a few abilities that have to be in place to make pretend play possible. These emerge around age two for most children and become more complex and nuanced throughout early childhood. They include:

  • The ability to use objects, actions, and ideas to represent other objects, actions, and ideas.
  • The ability to project an imagined situation onto a real one.
  • Knowing the difference between these, in other words what is real and what is not.

Actually sounds pretty challenging, right?! So why do children in every culture play pretend? One of the main reasons is to develop an increasingly advanced awareness of the self. With self-awareness we know we are distinct from the environment and from others, that we are the same person over time, and that we can control our own feelings, thoughts, and actions. That’s challenging, too!

The Role of Pretend Play in Advancing Self-Awareness

Many scholars find play allows the child to discover him/herself, which is an exceptionally strong drive. Through play children come to the realization they have the ability to be an individual in their own right with the power to think for themselves and make their own decisions.

Pretend play is particularly suited for this because it is based on representation, and in parallel self-awareness is the representation constructed about who one is as an individual. As children place themselves into various roles and create imaginary scenarios of their own choosing and design, they construct both who they are and who they can be. These self-awareness experiences are also important for a sense of competence that they’re capable people and for feelings of high self-esteem where children like who they are.

The Essential Role of Parents

The most present and important others in a child’s early life of course are his/her parents. It is within this relationship children come to learn they are distinct individuals and develop autonomy (having healthy independence). Child-directed play with an appropriate amount of parental guidance allows children to create and explore imagined scenarios far richer and meaningful than when they must always do so on their own. When parents support and facilitate pretend play but do not structure and lead rigidly, they promote the best path for their child to develop self-awareness.

Tips for Pretend Play to Advance Self-Awareness

Provide adequate & varied props. To engage in rich pretend play children need adequate and varied props to create roles and scenarios. This allows them to most fully explore, test, and discover a strong, healthy self-awareness. Investing in high-quality items will be more appealing to children and these can hold up to lots of pretend play over the years.  

Resist the urge to be the ‘Director’. Many times parents are tempted to script out the pretend scenario and then run the show. Doing so though does not give the child just what pretend play is intended to give. Children need to learn and experience they can think for themselves and make decisions.

Be a skilled partner. However, children benefit greatly when they have an adult partner in pretend play who is also able to guide and facilitate. Children will give you signals, both verbal and non-verbal to help you do this. What they need from you can vary, for example like Charley they may need help getting props together in a certain way or give you a specific role where it’s important to them that you play to their standards.

So as your children engage in pretend play, embrace knowing that they are becoming just who they are meant to be!

About the Author

Lilla Dale McManis, MEd., PhD., uses her training and experience as a psychologist, child developmentalist, educator, and parent to promote positive child outcomes through informed and effective parenting. Dr. McManis is President & CEO of Parent in the Know, a parenting-role and child social-emotional assessment and reporting service. She believes strongly in translating parenting research into meaningful practice.

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