If you’re a parent, you’ve undoubtedly witnessed the laundry basket become a truck and heaps of pillows become a fortress.  Your favorite throw blanket has become a saddle, perched atop the dog, who is now being referred to as a “horsey.”  You might have even heard talk of an imaginary friend (who may, supposedly, even be riding that “horsey”).

This is how children learn.  By pretending and imagining, children re-create situations in which they get to explore themselves, learn what it’s like to be someone else, solve problems, and even develop critical pre-reading skills.  

It may seem that your child is just playing.  No big deal, right?  But that play is anything but trivial.  It is serious, hands-on learning that builds many skills in many areas of development.  Take this example:

Your child is sitting in the laundry basket, holding his plate from lunch like a steering wheel, making lots of “brrrm brrrrm” and “honk honk!” sounds.  Suddenly he shouts “Oh no!  BOOM! We’ve got a flat tire!  What are we going to do?”  He hops out of the basket and starts using other toys as if they were tools, trying to fix the imagined flat.  But he flops down in feigned frustration.  “I can’t fix it!” He grabs the remote control, and holds it like a phone to his ear. “Hello, tow truck? I need your help!”

In this brief scene that your child is acting out, he’s not just playing – he’s doing a lot of work!  

Of course a laundry basket is not a truck, nor does it even look like a truck.  And your TV remote doesn’t make phone calls.  But your child is using these objects to symbolically take the place of the real thing.  This use of symbols is a precursor to reading and early number skills, in which written letters represent sounds, and written numbers represent quantities.  

This symbolism is also an early form of abstract thinking.  Abstract thought is anything that has to do with something that is not concrete or tangible.  (Ever try to explain to a two year old that Grandma will arrive in an hour?  The concept of time cannot be seen or felt, which is why a young child simply cannot grasp it).   By imagining a non-existent truck and flat tire to be real, your child is mentally engaging with the intangible and the abstract, something that he will do every day for the rest of his life.  

A flat tire is a very real problem, and by pretending to take on this problem your child is engaging in real-world critical thinking and  problem solving.  He tried to fix the tire on his own, and called a tow truck when he needed more help.  That’s some pretty awesome problem solving!

In acting out this imagined scene, your child is also “walking in someone else’s shoes” and experiencing someone else’s feelings.  This helps him develop a sense of empathy towards others, a critical social skill.  Plus, this type of play allows your child to “try on” various real-life roles. Imaginative play gives him the freedom to be anyone and anything he wishes.  This, combined with the thrilling success of solving that flat-tire problem, is a huge self-esteem booster.