Imaginative play can help prepare kids for school, social settings

This is not just child’s play with his or her favorite toy. It’s a time when your child can go from being an architect constructing the tallest building in the world to a pirate digging for buried treasure.

New research shows letting your child’s imagination run wild can have social and emotional advantages.

Playing house, cooking and serving dinner to friends or grabbing a hard hat for a day of building new cities — a child’s imagination can be endless.

“You don’t want to tell a kid how to play, just give them the opportunity to play,” says Developmental Psychologist Thalia Goldstein.

Goldstein studied 97 5-year-old children enrolled in pre-kindergarten head start. The kids were split in three activity groups.

One group pretended to be animals or other people, one group was read to, and a third group built with blocks.

“What we found was the children who were in the dramatic pretend play group increased their emotional control over the course of the eight weeks,” Goldstein says.

Researchers measured emotional control using puppets and by looking at children’s behavior when they were under stress.

In this study the puppets were either in control or out of control.

Researchers asked which puppet the kids were more like. Kids in the dramatic play group identified with the puppet in control.

“Kids are learning what their emotions feel like in their bodies. What their emotions feel like in themselves. and how they can begin to modulate and control those emotions.”

Goldstein recommends parents spend at least 15 minutes a day engaged in pretend play — something as simple as pretending to be a chef while your child is a waiter or pretending to bake a cake while the other celebrates a birthday.

It’s make-believe play that can have real-life results.

Researchers say the results suggest the potential for using pretend play as an intervention to improve emotional control and social skills and improve school readiness among high-risk kids.