Every day when my two little girls get home from preschool they ask if they can watch their Kindles. Since we recently banned YouTube in our house (thanks Momo), if allowed, they’ll be binge on Netflix kids for an hour or so until it’s time for dinner. It’s one of their favorite pastimes, as well as mine, so I tend to have a harder time saying no than their mother. But I do say no. As often as I’m able. Why? Because I want them to do something else instead. Something I loved doing as a child. I want them to pretend.

Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around pretending, creating expansive games with a friend, like movies, where we each had a role and objective and took turns living out an incredible fantasy. I played pretend with my stuffed animals at night to ward off boredom before I fell asleep. I played it with costumes, toys, the dog—it was a way of life for me that nurtured my creativity and helped shape me into the person I am today. But most importantly, it gave me a childhood full of wonder and imagination, something I desperately hope to pass on to my girls. Here’s why you should want the same thing:

Playing pretend helps with language development. Go sit outside your child’s room and listen to them while they play. You’ll probably hear them say things they’ve never said before. When pretending, they’ll be forced to come up with names for characters, places, etc. (Around my house it usually has the words glitter or sparkle in it.) New words and phrases bring new questions, and I don’t know about you, but I learn best when I’m legitimately curious about something.  Here’s another great resource if you’re curious about how play supports language development.

Playing pretend nourishes social skills. When children engage in pretend play it forces them to consider others and appreciate relationships with others, even if they’re playing by themselves. Imaginary friends get upset, princesses need rescuing from dragons. Children will train themselves to deal the emotions of others without even realizing it. By training in play, they’ll be better off when real emotional challenges come, especially if they play pretend with their friends, siblings, and even you.

Playing pretend promotes problem solving. I almost had five p-words in a row there . . . that would’ve been awesome . . . anyway. 90% of the time, entertainment revolves around conflict. As an author, I can assure that you conflict is essential to any good story. That’s why the fate of the world is at stake in almost every superhero movie you see, or the universe, or all of existence, because the greater the conflict, the more the observer is drawn into the story.

Conflict is ingrained in every essence of play, usually in the form of problem solving skills. Say a little boy decides he wants to play army but doesn’t have a toy gun. He does have building blocks, however. Before he can begin playing, he has a problem to solve. He must figure out how to snap the blocks together to form a gun shape. This develops confidence and helps build the necessary cognitive skills for problem solving the boy will use for the rest of his life.

Imagination is another thing developed by pretending. Some people are born with incredible imaginations in the same way that some are born gifted athletes. But like any other skill, imagination is something that can be developed through practice. I can personally attest to this.One of my two daughters was born with a knack for being imaginative, the other was not. But after watching myself and her sister play pretend for a couple years, she now pretends with the best of them.

Creativity A final great reason to encourage pretend play is it will help your child develop their creative side. Pretending as a child gave me a huge advantage when I broke into the world of fiction writing. I just went from pretending around me to pretending on paper, because the process of creating a pretend game was essentially the same as creating a good story. So if you plan on getting your child into writing, acting, or any number of other creative hobbies, then playing pretend will definitely help them along the way.

How To Do It

Not all childhoods are created equal. I grew up perfectly healthy with two loving parents, my wife grew up with kidney failure in a broken home. Playing pretend with our children doesn’t come as naturally to her as it does for me because she spent so many of her younger years sick. That’s not her fault. If you had a similar childhood, it’s not yours either. If you were too sick to play pretend when you were little, or had an abusive parent that wouldn’t let you do anything, or if pretending just never was your thing but you want to learn for the sake of your child, that’s what this section is for.

Pretending itself is very simple—you make believe, you create a story in your head, you apply fictional attributes to ordinary objects around you to make them into something else. A stick becomes wand, a blanket becomes a superhero cape, and so on. But whether you’re pretending with sticks and rocks or toys and dolls, the thing I feel that really makes a good pretend game is the objective of the game. Look at the game, Floor Is Lava, for example. So simple, yet so brilliant. The objective of the game is not to be on the floor when it turns to lava, and since there’s a time limit, a greater element of stress and conflict is added.

My girls like to play Restaurant frequently, and the same principles apply. I get to sit down and they come take my order, prepare the food, and bring it to me, but something always invariably goes wrong 😊. We run out of tomatoes, or my food gets burned—if this doesn’t happen, I do my best to add these elements in and then help my girls work their way through those problems. They are inevitably proud and their self-confidence boosted when they overcome the conflict presented and arrive at a pleasant resolution.
Every game of pretend can be orchestrated in the same way. You need players and the conflict/objective.

1. Players—Everyone involved and their specific roles in the game.
2. Conflict—An objective to be met or obstacle to be overcome.

My Own Example
A while back, I recorded one of the pretend games I was playing with my girls so my wife could see it. Hopefully it’ll give you some ideas as well. I’ll walk you through everything I did quickly before you watch the video. This is just how I like to play with my kids, and it may seem like a lot of prep work, but I promise it’s worth it. My girls still talk about the time we did this.
Supergirl and Batman Vs. The Joker
The Rundown:
The Players

1. Me—Alfred and the Joker
2. My Girls—Supergirl and Batman

The Objective/Conflict
1. Save the Baby Animals From the Joker
2. Use specific methods to defeat the Joker

So setting it all up took about 45 minutes, then the game lasted around thirty I think. It started with the costumes (You don’t need anything fancy. I did this as a kid with my dad with a blanket and a stick and it was the best thing ever. The important thing is that you’re playing with them.) I chose superheroes because it’s something I love. It’s easier to pretend with things you’re passionate about. Plus, I knew I could make a convincing Joker and Alfred costume and the kids already had superhero costumes. Costumes are always a great idea when playing pretend because they help everyone get into the imaginative spirit. Again, as you see from the video, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. I used shaving cream, my wife’s lipstick, and some of my old uniforms.

First, I got the kids dressed and introduced them to the baby animals they’d be saving. Then, I set up situations where I, the Joker, would have to be defeated with specific means to help my kids develop their problem solving skills (the swords, the nerf guns, the brick wall).Then, I recorded videos of me as Alfred giving them the mission and uploaded them to Youtube with my phone, to play on our big TV. Give them that authentic superhero, Bat cave feel, you know? Lastly, we played! And we had fun! I had just as much fun as they did, and they still talk about that game to this day. 

Check it out in the video below 🙂

Hopefully this will give you some ideas! Remember, try to create unique and specific challenges for your children to overcome as they play. It really will help them later on in adult life. And once you’ve created a few games for them, walk them through creating one of their own. If you’re kids don’t seem that into it, make sure that you are trying to have fun with them. Believe me, I know parenting isn’t easy. But as long as you’re trying your best, your children will know and appreciate it.