Pretend Play & Creativity

We’re something of a mix between structured and unschooling homeschoolers.  The structured part is when I make kiddo practice his handwriting and we work on math stuff.  The unstructured – it’s a lot of playing.  Seriously, a LOT of playing.  I know – in my head – that there’s a lot of learning happening while they’re playing, but it’s hard to snuff out that nagging voice saying things like “kids in public school are doing worksheets!”  or “we’re not doing enough school, he’s going to fall behind!”

Ugh.  Hate that voice.  It’s the one thing keeping me from rejoicing in homeschooling and just letting go.  It’s what worries me – that I’m failing my kid.  It tells me that my unschooling approach resembles educational neglect more than anything else.  While I know intellectually that we do a lot of learning through play, and a lot of stealth learning, sometimes my insecurities grab me by the neck and shake the snot out of me.


Reading studies about pretend play, for example, make me feel happier about what we’re doing.  It’s important.  It’s critical.  It’s something that today’s kids are frequently missing out on, especially the older ones.  Here’s a few of the points that really stood out to me, especially because we actively teach emotional regulation and life skills.


1. Pretend Play is critical to emotional understanding

Sandra Russ’ study on fantasy play and emotional understanding linked pretend play with positive boosts in emotional understanding.  In other words, pretend play helped children understand emotions and raised empathy.  For kids like mine who struggle to understand emotions or how to express those emotions, pretend play is a safe, non-threatening environment to practice.

For a rigid child – like the Engineer was as a young child – pretend play is a chance to push past that rigidity and do something new.  Adding in his siblings pushed that rigidity even further, as he learned to pretend play with other children.  Today he’s fairly flexible about things, and has learned that not everything has to be “his way,” and that other people can have valid, fun games that he will enjoy playing.


2. Pretend play helps with self-regulation

Several studies (which were reviewed for other studies) suggest that pretend play is important for developing self-regulation.  Self-regulation is that internal thing that helps us control our emotions and behavior in appropriate ways.  A toddler has less self-regulation than a 5-year-old, so we expect tantrums from the toddler and not from the 5-year-old.

Gifted kids and kids with special needs often struggle with self-regulation.  They don’t always respond in appropriate ways to situations like the Engineer responding to losing a game.  Tears, tantrums, and disappointment.  What you expect from a toddler.  He reacts in an asynchronous way because he struggles with self-regulation.

He’s doing better – thankfully.  He manages to control his emotions when he’s angry and lashes out verbally instead of physically now.  Mostly.  He can generally hold in his disappointment at losing instead of full-out rage.

3. Pretend play boosts imagination and creativity

Russ also found that individuals who participated in pretend play as children go on to become more creative, imaginative individuals when they are older.  Now, that sounds really dry and boring, so let’s break it down.

All that pretend play your toddler does?  Well, when he’s older, it will help him do better at creative writing.  Those imaginary worlds your daughter creates (and gets lost in?)  When she’s older, she’ll have better coping skills for difficult emotional settings.  What about your teenager?  All that time spent making worlds for their dinosaurs helped them become problem solvers and divergent thinkers who can navigate a complex situation and find multiple solutions.

Sounds like real world skills, right?  So pretend play has very real implications and benefits for our kids as they get older.


Feel better?

Reading studies like this, which fully admit that they’re only scratching the surface of the potential implications of pretend play, makes me feel much better about how my kids spend their day.  They’re learning interpersonal skills, boosting creativity, learning self-regulation and emotional understanding, as well as some of the more typical “school” skills that they need.

I put out the road tape today, and they all spent most of their free time zooming down roads and making their own little worlds.  The Engineer has big plans for making houses and “a whole city!” to go around the roads.  They spent their morning coloring flags (favorites were the Olympic flag, the US flag, and the South Korean flag) so that they could do their own walk of nations.  This morning before breakfast, the Engineer constructed a “house” for his hamster out of the building straws.  It was time well spent.  Time spent learning so many different things.  Time spent just being a kid.


I am so thankful that we can homeschool.  Because this – this relaxed, lazy morning – is a gift.  His age peers were riding the bus, heading out to class and a day full of school.  We played.

One comment

  1. Yes! I do feel better. I had one of those days yesterday where I started to tailspin feeling like we needed to be doing MORE!! I love these kind of studies, but would never think to go look for them myself, so thank you for sharing them!!


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