Given the importance of pretend play for developmental growth there may be a question as to when to begin focusing on this type of play, particularly for a child with autism or other developmental disorder. If you’re regularly engaging your child in back and forth interactions and she’s warmly engaged with you, closing many circles of communication (i.e., responsive to your initiations), and initiates to you with gestures, vocalization, etc. she’s ready for pretend play. In this post (Part 1) I offer pointers to “get the ball rolling”. Part 2 will suggest ideas to further enrich and elaborate on play and address individual differences and concerns.
- Engage around what interests your child
Engaging with children based on what interests them facilitates rich interaction and sustained engagement and these interactions offer the foundation for developmental growth. To learn what interests your child observe what he or she does in their spare moments, what fascinates them, what they love to do, and what they’re interested in in the moment and then look for opportunities to engage them around these interests. Do they love it when you play music at home or in the car, do they love nothing more than looking out the window to see all the cars and trucks that pass by, are they fascinated by airports, are they always in motion, or do they have a strong interest in sports stars and statistics? Acting out imaginary games of baseball or basketball may be the entrée to symbolic play for a boy or girl with a strong interest in sports and sports stars. If a child loves dump trucks, play can focus on pretending to drive, back up, load and unload a toy dump truck. A child who enjoys going with Dad to pick up food at the drive thru of a fast food restaurant is likely to enjoy enacting this activity. Offer a pretend “mike” to a child who enjoys listening to music on YouTube, CDs, or the car radio.
2. Treat actions and objects symbolically
As we engage with children during their daily activities there are often opportunities to offer symbolic ideas by treating objects and actions symbolically. Here are examples:
- Your child has finished drinking his milk or juice from a cup. You pick up the empty cup and pretend to drink from it (including sound effects of slurping). You say “Mm! That was delicious juice!”
- You’ve lifted up your child in your arms. You say “OK pilot, let’s take off” and move her around as she “flies to Florida to see Grandma”.
- Hand your child a “key” to open the front door of a dollhouse or to start the engine of a toy car he’s shown interest in.
- As your child is pushing a toy dump truck around on the floor have a toy figure ask if he can get a ride home.
- As your child crawls in and out of a play tunnel suggest that she’s exploring a cave and ask if she sees a bear in there.
- As a child is sliding down a sliding board talk about sliding down into the ocean and mention the sea creatures he may encounter (whale, shark, schools of fish, etc.) after he steps down. Ask what he sees once he’s gotten off the slide.
- As a child is banging pots together say, “I’m in the band too” and join in or you can start marching and say, “Let’s start a parade!”
3. Offer toys and materials that support pretend play
- Pretend play toys include dolls, puppets, stuffed animals, action figures and toy figurines, play vehicles (cars, trucks, trains, airplane, bus, etc.), materials for pretend cooking and housekeeping, empty food containers, play sets for different themes (farm, zoo, fire station, etc.), etc.
- Open-ended toys and materials including art materials such as crayons, markers, paints, modeling materials (play dough, clay), and blocks and construction toys can also be offered to encourage symbolic play and representational thinking. These open-ended materials are age-appropriate for supporting symbolic thinking in older children and teens. Older children and teens may also enjoy discussing the plots of books, movies, fictional TV series, etc. including possibilities for alternate endings.
- Closed ended toys and materials. Closed ended toys are more helpful for promoting fine motor and perceptual skills and building attention than pretend play. These types of toys have a specific purpose and are generally used in a set way. These include puzzles, shape sorters, matching and memory games, mazes, manipulative/fine motor toys such as stringing beads, pegboards, etc.
- While pretend play toys and materials are helpful, don’t overlook the opportunities for pretend play/symbolic thinking using everyday materials throughout the day including large motor play, outdoor play, and daily routines such as snack time, bath time, etc. as discussed in pointer #2 above.
4. Broaden the child’s range of emotionally meaningful experiences
Inspiration for pretend play is all around us and can emerge from a broad range of emotionally meaningful experiences such as visits to a zoo or aquarium, a fire station, an airport to see the planes take off and land, the beach, an animal shelter, etc., etc. Even routine trips to the supermarket or accompanying a parent to pick up pizza at a pizzeria can offer possibilities for imaginative play and enrichment of play. During the visit help your child notice various facets of the setting or experience and the roles of people. If possible take photos or make a video to talk about afterward. Also keep your eyes open to what is of interest to your child right in their own neighborhood such as the mail delivery person doing their rounds or workers repairing the road. For each child, among their experiences in the world around them, there will be ones that particularly “click” and inspire play.