What Does Pretend Play Show Us Anyway?

This has been on my mind a lot lately. A lot. Every time I read another teacher’s post on FB about how their recess time has been cut short, their kindergarteners aren’t allowed rest time, and how their administration doesn’t allow a pretend play center because you can’t make concrete learning assessments (which is not true, by the way.) I’m not one to jump into the political issues behind it all, but I do consider it important for us to be reminded of why we had those things in our education time in the first place. So what does pretend play show us anyway? What things can we observe in comparison to directed teaching time?

What does pretend play show anyway? How do we really know if kids are learning when they are playing?

I know that I’m a homeschool educator and things are different in the traditional classroom, but there are some overall concepts and truths that reach into both learning arenas.

As I sit here writing this, my three oldest children are sitting in their play space having a mostly pleasant time with each other.

These are the things that pretend play is showing me as I sit and listen:

What Does Pretend Play Show Us?

Cause and effect: “If my toy does this, then your toy will do that”

Problem solving: Not just 1+1=2, but collaborative input that involves taking another person’s ideas and working together towards a common goal

Interpersonal relationships: In addition to the kids learning how to play together peacefully, the characters that they have developed are also interacting with each other

Character development: As in planning for a story. They are developing the personalities and characteristics of the people in their story including accents, age, and financial status.

Understanding of setting: They have developed a complex setting that involves a home, a city and the landscape surrounding them. They also are showing their understanding of urban and rural development by showing the need for offices, schools, stores and farms.

Economics: Every time their character needs to pay for something, a store owner provides a good, another character uses the goods they are demonstrating their understanding of our economic system.

Marketing: The way that they represent their goods to the other toys shows how they are being influenced (for good or bad) by the marketing ploys that surround us every day.

Trade Secrets: I just heard one child accuse another of sharing their farming secrets with another farmer.

Good Work Ethic: Explaining why work is necessary.

Healthy Habits: Going to bed at a proper time, eating healthy meals, waking in time to do required tasks.

Those are just the things that I have overheard in the last 10 minutes. They are things for which I can actually track understanding.

A step into the room tells me that there is a lot more to observe:




Venn Diagrams



Codes/Representations (using an object to represent another consistently)

Observing these skills, lets me know how to tailor my children’s education to make sure that they have on-level resources to increase their understanding of various topics. My 12-year-old is ready to learn more about world economics and how they differ in other countries. My 10-year-old is ready to learn more about the supply chain. My 7-year-old is ready to learn more about dependence on trade workers.

As a bonus, every session of pretend play is different. Kids can show understanding of history and culture by changing the time period and/or location. They can show their understanding of engineering when they create buildings for their toys to live in or tools for their toys to use. There are so many observable skills if we just give kids the opportunity for pretend play.

What about you?

What skills have you observed during play time? How could you track those observations? Do you think that those observations are more or less valid than a test or planned activity?

I’d love to hear your input! Share your observations here or on the Life Over C’s Facebook page.

What does pretend play show anyway? How do we really know if kids are learning when they are playing?

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