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  • Pretend Play and Empathy

    I love watching little kids engaged in pretend play! From the older toddler who wipes their little play table with a bib to the preschooler who believes they are Buzz Lightyear, and right on through to the 5-7 year olds who are conducting business with their play kitchen and cash register. Pretend play is an adorable, and very important phase in a child’s development. Pretend play facilitates the development of empathy.

    Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It develops over time starting in infancy and is typically developed by the time our children enter adolescence. A lot of factors go into the development of empathy, today, I would like to talk about pretend play.

    When a child is pretending to be someone else they step fully into a role with their imaginations. A young child’s imagination is so powerful that they really believe that they are that person. Think about a 3yo who is dressed in a Spiderman costume…She is running around, throwing out webs from their hands, jumping and landing just like Spidy does in the movies. She is not ‘pretending’ to be Spiderman, she ‘is’ Spiderman! Look at the little girl in the picture with this post – she is really washing her puppy dog! She knows that puppy needs a good bath and just like her mom and dad bathe her, she is caring for her puppy by keeping him clean and healthy.

    Picture a child playing teacher – sitting in a circle with his stuffed animals all around him as the students and the child is reading a book to his class, stopping at each page to turn the book around and show the class – just like his own teacher does. Even the toddler is starting to use very early pretend play – we call it ‘mimicing real life activities.’ For example, when the toddler attempts to diaper their bear and then runs to show you, all the time, holding the bear up-side-down by its foot with its head bobbing at the child’s side!

    These examples are precious, and in each, the child is practicing being someone else. By stepping into someone else’s experience we get a taste of what it’s like to be that person. If we can get a taste of their experience, we can also get a sense of what it feels like to be them. This is empathy!

    When a child feels successful as a teacher or doctor they are learning something about what it feels like to be competent. When they struggle to swaddle the baby-doll they are experiencing first-hand what it’s like to be frustrated while being a parent. When they save the city from the bad-guy they know what it feels like to be a hero. These feelings are very real to the young child because they do not distinguish pretend from real – It’s all the same thing in their little world.

    The next time your kiddo wants to play school or super hero or asks you to be the co-pilot on the plane made of pillows lined up on the floor – indulge them! It can be hard for us adults to enjoy this type of play but if you can do it now and then you will get to enter into your child’s world and see them they way they see themselves. That’s pretty cool!

    Photo is courtesy of a super-mom and her empathetic daughter

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