During the early childhood years, moms and dads create the learning environment that kids will use to rehearse skills for living. Pretend play literally and figuratively lets children try on different emotional, social, linguistic, and body “costumes.”
One day a boy might be a tough guy – a man of few words who walks with a swagger; the next he’s a lost explorer trusting his hero friends to follow his cries for help. Every child can be an Olympic champion – if Mom remembers to save the lids from the frozen orange juice for the medal ceremony. For very little expenditure of money or time, parents can set the stage for the sociodramatic play that will benefit children for a lifetime.
You will greatly enhance their play time if you:
- Maintain an alert eye for props like real clothing, costumes, hats, purses, scarves, stethoscopes, or discarded keys on a real keychain.
- Always safety-test your finds. Check for lead content and toy recalls. Keep choking hazards away from children under 3, or children over 3 who still mouth explore. Throw away broken toys, flimsy toys or items with loose parts. Keep in mind a time frame for the usefulness of the props.
- Conduct your searches at thrift stores, garage sales, and grandparents’ attics for interesting finds with built-in history lessons.
- Organize and store the supplies around themes. Grocery store, or post office, for example.
- Securely tape a snapshot of items to storage shelves to encourage a fast, fun matching game at cleanup time.
- Color or decorate the boxes in which supplies are stored. That will give a pre-reader as much information as a sign or label will give an adult.
- Label storage shelves and boxes with words. Children with an emerging curiosity about reading and writing will be able have their intellectual needs met as soon as they realize they are interested — without having to ask (or wait for) an adult.
- Cheerfully expect to perform an opera of animal sounds when your living room becomes a petting zoo for the day.
- Change the pace at the end of the playtime with a calming, well-illustrated book related to the play theme.
- Save coupons, sale ads, paper bags, and empty cereal boxes to set up an excursion to a make-believe grocery store.
- Provide child-safe, age-appropriate, writing tools and paper for all the love letters, grocery lists, warning signs, parking tickets, etc., children will want to write.
- Provide adult supervision at all times.
- Older children (by age 5 or 6) can plan their play episodes, and can sustain the plot from session to session.
- Cardboard boxes can be covered with contact paper to create makeshift desks, grocery store shelves, and checkout counters.
- An old microphone will spur some young children to sing a song or deliver a sermon.
- Stuffed animals do double duty as friends, audience members, characters, and oh yes, wildlife.
- Books and environmental print introduce valuable vocabulary words that sustain pretend play schemes.
- Worn-out or broken toys frustrate and endanger children.
- Adults affirm dramatic play by supplying props, costumes, and a safe space for exploration.
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