“Play is the work of childhood.” – Fred Rogers

As adults, it can be challenging for us to understand just how much learning happens when children play. Crawling around and barking like a dog while we’re trying to cook in the kitchen can seem like a nuisance. But look a little more closely, and you’ll see important shoulder muscles strengthening; brain hemispheres connecting through the bilateral movement, and empathy developing as your child steps into another creature’s experience and point of view. Maybe that loud bark isn’t so annoying after all.

Children of all ages are naturally drawn to role-playing. They set up shops to sell goods, come to their stuffed animal’s rescue, take your order at their newly-established restaurant, and quiet their crying baby doll. What exactly is role-play, and why do all children do it? Should we encourage them in it, and how might we participate? 

Role-play is when a child imaginatively takes on the role of another person, animal, or being and acts out a scenario. Through this type of play, a child expresses their ideas of how another might act or feel in different situations. Costumes, toys, and other props enhance a child’s imagination but are never necessary: A child innately knows how to make mudpies out of mud.


Types of role play

There are several main categories of role play that children gravitate toward: occupational, fantasy, and real-life. 

Occupational: Children love to imagine themselves as adults: What will they be when they grow up? What are they interested in, and how might that develop into a job? Children pretend to be professional soccer players, firefighters, teachers, waiters, doctors, and veterinarians—there are endless opportunities for children to explore different occupations. 

Fantasy: Children love to pretend to be characters from their favorite books, movies, and TV shows. Imaginative play brings the characters to life and allows kids to enter the stories more deeply. How might it feel to have extra human strength? Or to fly from the monkey bars to the slide? What happens when good must face evil, and who’s side will they choose to be on?

Real-Life: House is one of the most popular forms of role-playing. And for good reason: family life is the core of a child’s existence. Acting out real-life scenarios helps children process their own experiences and relationship dynamics. Pretending to be a mother or a father allows a child to try on the role of authority. They also practice family dynamics and process their sibling relationships.


The Benefits of Play

Since all children engage in this type of play, what benefits can be seen from it? 

Enhances Imaginations and Creativity: Role-playing is, of course, an excellent exercise in imagination. The playground turns into a castle, the bed into a flying car, the broom into Evil Knievel. Sparking the imagination leads to greater problem-solving skills, more profound empathy, and stronger brain connections.

Promotes Social and Emotional Development: Children often play in groups. Taking on different roles and scenarios requires children to work together to tell one story. Negotiation, decision-making, empathy—these social and emotional skills develop as children play together.

Improves Language Skills and Communication: Of course, acting out different scenarios requires constant communication. Children must learn how to express themselves, which words convey their ideas most effectively, and, most importantly, how to listen to one another. Communication is key to role play.

Aids Problem Solving: The horse has a broken leg; how will the vet fix it? The child doesn’t yet know how to write; how will he take down the dinner order? Evil has descended on the playground; how will the good guys fight it off? On all levels of pretend play, children are growing their problem-solving skills. 

Develops Fine and Gross Motor Skills: And all the while, children are climbing trees, jumping off platforms, swinging across the monkey bars. Their physical and technical skills are strengthened with each bad guy they defeat, each fire they put out, each fort they build.


How to engage in pretend play

While we may wish our imaginations were still as fresh and agile as a child’s, they simply are not. How, then, are we to engage in pretend play?

Participate and Be Present: Children like to assign parents roles, often ones that switch up the power dynamic: “you be the baby, and I’ll be the mother.” Take up your part with gusto—pretend to cry, be hungry, and sleep. Express the emotions of your character and help set up different scenarios. But remember, let your child take the lead—what scenarios does your child want to act out and process? Let them guide the imaginative play.

Learn about your child: Consider it an opportunity to learn about your child’s interests. What questions does your child have about life? Is he trying to find new ways to interact with others through role play? Is she exploring her strength and testing her skills? Children constantly communicate who they are each time they choose what game they will play and how they will play it. 

Utilize the form: While playing with your child is important, you could also take the lead from time to time. You could set up scenarios and roles for you and your child. How could you use her stuffed animals to practice handling the experience of friends gossiping? Or what it might feel like to be left out? Of course, you don’t want to rob the play of all its fun and only make it educational. But you can layer in ways for children to practice different responses in different scenarios. 

However you decide to engage with role-playing, rest assured that the pretend dog barking at your feet is a fundamental form of play. So maybe tonight, once dinner is in the oven, you might take the time and bark together. 

Contact us today to learn more about HIPPY and how our home visiting program builds and encourages role play at home.