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The Evolution and Benefits of Pretend Play

Marina's picture

When discussing play it is easy to envision scenes of small children playing with dolls, building iron fortresses of pillows or shooting laser beams out of nerf guns in an attempt to save the world from an alien apocalypse. The ease with which children’s minds wander into the realms of fantasy creates a simple and effective form of entertainment. Each activity mentioned above is a version of “pretend play” or “fantasy play1,” a type of play in which one relies largely on imagination, opposed to material objects and environments. Pretend play is an undeniably popular form of play among children, but receives much less attention from researchers than forms such as rough and tumble play which are easier to study and seem to have greater potential towards human development. My goal is to avoid the subjectivity of pretend play’s significance relative to other forms of play and focus of the benefits of pretend play and its application through various stages of life. For this reason, types of play involving sensual and physical interactions, although equally important, will not be examined in this essay.

Urban Wildscapes2 proposes the idea that “play can be a means to make wild those spaces that otherwise may be seen as ‘smooth.’” Rephrased, play can be used to create excitement and adventure in environments considered risk free. The obvious play that comes to mind in conjunction with this quote is pretend play. With imagination and creativity, even the most mundane of objects can become fantastic. Sticks become swords, clouds become ponies, the teacher’s desk is pride rock, and that scar on your knee is a battle wound from the time you protected an entire village from a host of fire breathing leopards. Pretend play enables people to change their identity, environment, or situation without ever leaving a room. Anyone and everyone has access to pretend play, making it by far the easiest type of play to execute regardless of supervision or restrictions. 

By analyzing our childhood memories we can deduce the role pretend play played in our own lives. The infinite opportunities for pretend play and the allure of the extreme control imagination gives over modifying any aspect of existence, are incentive enough for anyone to exercise it at some point in life. On Serendip a student calling themselves “purple” posted:

Most of my childhood play memories involve made up games. My best friend and I would constantly dream up games to play in the playground or to pass time while we were sitting on the forty minute bus ride on our way home from school. One of our favorite games to play was one we made up, called spy girls. We we were some sort of super hero-spy hybrid possessing every super power we could imagine and even came up with code names for each other. We spent endless hours at the playground and in our houses giving new lives to people and structures, making them part of our pretend world. Innocent bystanders at the playground became the villains we hid from or victims in need of saving, and the slides and swings became unfathomable obstacles. I remember we would sometimes have to “pause” our game and slip back into the real world when a parent called us to go back inside, as if we were sitting in front of a TV, playing a video game. 

Recently, while babysitting I was reminded of the memories of playing made up games. I was amazed at how the three year old I was looking after was able to construct wild stories with just the dolls and blocks she was playing with. […] Just like in my memory,  I am not sure how we kept coming up with new scenarios or how we could go on forever making up new parts to the story. There must have been something exciting about having the ability to imagine our way in an out of every situation.


Purple describes pretend play as something they could “dream up” in any situation to add excitement to otherwise boring experiences. What I find interesting are the types of pretend play purple engaged in. They recall playing “super hero-spy,” turning “innocent bystanders” into “villains” and “slides and swings” into “unfathomable obstacles.” The games purple played were imagined to create a sense of danger within risk free zones. They were using pretend play to make “smooth” spaces “wild.” A benefit of pretendingis that there is a distinction to be made between fantasy and reality. As purple mentions, it is possible to “pause” a “game and slip back into the real world.” Within the parameters of pretend play, many things that are not possible in the real world can happen and without the consequences of reality. Pretend play can also teach people how to draw the line between “real” and “pretend” by clearly laying boundaries between the two within the safety net of play. 

Pretend play is the primary form of play described in purple’s passage. This lends itself to the conclusion that pretend play has had a profound impact on her memories in ways that other types of play, which are not mentioned, did not. Whether or not pretend play has neurological effects is irrelevant to make the point that pretend play is an important part of many people’s lives, and a part that will stick within their memories almost indefinitely.

As people grow older and mature, there tends to be a conception that they lose the ability to enact pretend play. It is true that pretend play becomes much less central within their priorities, however, pretend play is often used without being acknowledged for what it is. The goals of pretend play tend to shift over time; children fantasize with the intention of entertaining whereas adults use it as a method of escaping the stressors of reality. Meditation, creative writing, even watching television can be forms of pretend play. Pretend play is present when someone attempts to remove themselves from reality, often to fantasize about versions of ideal life circumstances. Used correctly, play is not an obstacle to work. Pretend play can even benefit work by reducing stress and increasing productivity. 

In conclusion, pretend play, although underrated, is an essential skill that can be used anywhere, anytime, by anyone, during any phase of life. It can add excitement and thrill to banal experiences or provide a relaxing outlet to the hustle and bustle of daily life. With pretend play one can experience the elation of danger without exposing themselves to actual risk. Most importantly, it evolves to meet an individuals growth. There is no reason to fear the pleasures play can provide, so why not reap the benefits?

1 Robin Henig, Taking Play Seriously, New York Times (Feb. 17, 2008).

2 Tim Edensor, Bethan Evans, Julian Holloway, Steve Millington and Jon Binnie. Playing in Industrial Ruins: Interrogating Teleological Understandings of Play in Spaces of Material Alterity and Low Surveillance. Urban Wildscapes. Ed. Anna Jorgensen and Richard Keenan. New York: Routledge, 2011. 65-79.

Purple. "The Superpowers of Imagination." Web log post. /oneworld/changing-our-story-2015/superpowers-imagination. Serendip 1994-2015, 21 Sept. 2015. Web.