It’s amazing what kids come up with when they play: dinosaurs living happily on farms, chocolate and bacon sandwiches… They make up all sorts of strange things. But after 6 years working at GLTC, I’ve learned pretend play is much more than just a bit of fun. In fact these days, when high-tech toys top many shopping lists, it is more important than ever for kids to have the chance to play pretend games; it’s one of the most valuable and important learning experiences you can give them.
You’ll have heard many times how role play toys develop the imagination and social skills. But what do those phrases actually mean? First of all a healthy imagination: it isn’t just about making up a good story, it’s about understanding, empathy and problem solving. It’s being able to understand how other people feel and minding how they feel, being able to explain things, being able to imagine what might happen in another place or in the future, and maybe even how to make things better… A good imagination means they can begin to be a kind, happy and engaged human being.
And social skills? Well, it’s not just saying hello, please and thank you; it’s more about learning how to share, to take turns, to communicate feelings, and be part of a group. And this isn’t to save us parents embarrassment at Playgroup; interaction with other kids is part of how they learn, especially at school. They identify skills and ideas from other children and incorporate them into their own development. Behaviours like not sharing and not communicating make it much harder for them to interact with, and therefore learn from, their peer group.
Role play also increases their knowledge of the world. Babies and children learn from watching adults and the people around them; role play toys provide a wonderful opportunity for children to copy that behaviour with props that are appropriate ie safe, smaller, lighter, and sometimes with exaggerated or simplified features. For example playing with toy food, play kitchens and utensils will generate discussion about food and diet.
So having understood the benefits of role play toys, how should we choose them? Toni, our Toy Buyer, has years of experience and an unfailing sense of fun, which makes her brilliant at spotting good ideas as well as designing GLTC’s own role play toys. “Role play toys should act as props for a child’s own game; it’s often the simpler, less specific ones that work best, even though initially they don’t seem to ‘do’ as much. They literally exercise the child’s imagination more; think of it as a good run out and a big stretch for the brain – having too many electronic toys and prescriptive games is like never letting your kids run in the park or jump in puddles.”
But not all kids naturally want to play pretending games, and within that boys are a particular concern; they already tend to develop social skills more slowly than girls, a problem which is exacerbated if they are uninterested in pretend play. It isn’t clear whether they’re just made that way, or because they find the available role play less appealing. But either way, given its educational value, we need to make sure we find whatever role play toys work best for them. It’s something we try to address at GLTC: of course we believe children should be free to play with whatever toys they prefer, rather than having things prescribed as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ toys. But we know from experience that some toys really are more appealing to boys – and this is what we try to flag to our customers.
As parents we also need to be tolerant of their play. As a mother myself I was worried and unsettled by my eldest son’s tendency to make toy guns of anything (most famously, toast), whereas my other two children would spend hours with trains and doll houses in their own little world. But we have to be willing to allow kids, especially boys, to play in their own energetic and sometimes aggressive ways, in order for them to develop the social skills that this type of play facilitates. Indeed observational research has found that boys who have been discouraged from playing soldiers, pirates, superheroes and such like can become frustrated and disruptive – both in and out of the classroom; the constant negative attention made them withdrawn, dispirited and isolated. It breaks my heart that any child should feel like that. But on a more positive note the research also showed that working with their play rather than against it produced really positive effects; the children became more socially integrated, they interacted better with other children, and their imaginative play improved and took on new, less aggressive directions. I wish the Me of 15 years ago, the well-meaning Mum who fretted about toast guns and twiggy swords, had known that, I needn’t have worried – and my gun-toting 5 year old is now a delightful, kind, empathetic eighteen year old with no sign of psychotic behaviour at all.
It seems to me it doesn’t matter what the role play is, as long as they do some; we need to offer all our children the sort of toys that engage their imagination, undirected by our own views and preferences. Our task is to provide the scaffolding of creative play and let them fill in the gaps, making sure we are there to guide them if they need it. So here’s to the dinosaurs on the farm, the chocolate and bacon sandwiches and even those buttery weapons … Long live Pretend Play!