How to Encourage Social Skills Through Pretend Play

Girl playing with dolls in front of dollhouse

As parents, we all want our children to thrive socially, and imaginative play is a fantastic way to encourage that development! Of all the benefits of pretend play, the development of social skills for kids is one of the most critical. As kids role play, make up social scenarios, and communicate with their playmates, they’re doing more than passing the time – they’re growing the skills that will help them develop confidence and healthy relationships throughout their life.

And yes, even though kids are naturally driven to pretend, there are things you can and should do to encourage pretend play!

Understanding Social Skills

Social skills are the skills we use to communicate, interact with, and relate to others effectively. They include verbal and nonverbal communication, problem-solving, conflict resolution, empathy, and self-awareness. Kids develop these skills over time through their experiences and interactions with others, through their exposure to different social situations, and perhaps most importantly…through play!

Examples of some key social skills include:

  • Listening actively: Listening carefully to what someone else is saying and responding appropriately.
  • Taking turns: Waiting for your turn to speak or play, and understanding that everyone should have a chance.
  • Sharing: Letting others use or have something you have, and taking turns with toys or games.
  • Making friends: Showing interest in others, starting conversations, and finding common interests.
  • Empathy: Understanding and responding to others' feelings and needs.
  • Problem-solving: Identifying and working through challenges or disagreements with others.

Role of Pretend Play in Social Skills Development

So, why is pretend play so critical for helping your littles develop those social skills?

First off, pretend play gives kids the chance to practice their communication skills with peers. They have to negotiate roles, rules, and objectives with their playmates, and work together to make their imaginary world come to life. Plus, they get to work on conflict resolution because let's face it, sometimes arguments –both real and imaginary– break out during playtime!

But it's not just basic social skills that they're practicing. Through pretend play, kids can also learn to empathize with others by imagining themselves in different situations or taking on the perspective of another character. And they get to practice problem-solving skills by imagining different outcomes and coming up with different strategies to achieve their goals.

And don’t think that kids only learn through pretend play with their peers. When you engage in pretend play with them, you have the power to model behaviors like empathy, listening, and handling frustration better than their peers could – all while in character as a fairy-astronaut, of course. (Not to mention, kids get a huge vocabulary boost from spending quality time with adults who use rich, expressive language during pretend play.)

Encouraging Pretend Play for Social Skills Development

So, you’re sold on the benefits of pretend play for your little’s budding social skills, and you want to make sure they get a healthy dose of pretend play every day. Here’s some simple strategies to make pretend play a natural part of your family’s daily life:

Keep toys simple

Provide your kiddos with open-ended toys and props like blocks, dolls, or dress-up clothes. Remember that toys don’t have to be fancy or flashy to encourage meaningful play. In fact, simple toys are often best as they let your kids’ imagination take the lead. Dressing up as different characters can help children practice empathy and understanding of others. Pretend play kitchens prompt kids to practice a host of social scenarios from ordering food to serving others.

Make the time

Minimize screen time and packed schedules. Hey, no judgment. We get that sometimes an episode or two of Bluey can save your sanity. But when kids have constant access to screens, they never have to be bored, which is often the catalyst for their best pretend play! Similarly, schedules packed with activities (even fun activities) can leave kids so busy they rarely get the chance to lead their own play.

Join in!

Don't be afraid to join in on the fun yourself! When you do, you model social skills and provide support as they practice new behaviors. Take on different roles, help them work through conflicts, and encourage them to try out new ways of interacting with others.

Tips for Parents and Caregivers

Want to really maximize social skill development as you pretend with your child? Keep these tips in mind the next time you and your kiddo are playing:

  • Use real-life situations. Pretend play can also be used to help your child practice skills that they will need in real-life situations. Playing doctor can help prepare children for a visit to the doctor's office, or setting up a pretend play grocery store can help them practice basic social greetings.
  • Make pretend conversations fun! Pretend play offers opportunities for your kiddos to practice expressing themselves clearly. Engage them and get them talking as you pretend together!
  • Use conflicts as teachable moments. Pretend play often involves conflict and problem-solving. Sometimes, those conflicts are just pretend, and sometimes they’re very, very real (especially when playing with peers or siblings). Either way, you can use these situations as a way to teach your child how to resolve conflicts, negotiate, and find creative solutions to problems

With a little intentionality from you and a lot of imagination from your child, the power of pretend play can help your child grow into a confident communicator and understanding friend. Now, have fun and go play!