May 15, 2020

Joint Pretend Play at Home: Parents and Children as Play Partners

Sarah O. Weiler, guest author

Every pretend play situation is replete with choices to be made and problems to be solved. Whole wheat or white pasta? Plastic, paper or cloth grocery bags? Coupons, cash, check, credit card?

Joint pretend play has been shown to create a zone of proximal development (zpd)* for children’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional growth. Joint pretend play positions children and adults as play partners, collaboratively creating make-believe play together.  Children’s learning is exponentially potenialized through joint pretend play, as adults support the expansion of children’s conceptual resources and their depth of understanding across many different disciplines. This approach helps children make more informed decisions in play, and, as play creates a zpd, it empowers them to make more meaningful and intentional decisions in their real life. Yet this form of play challenges popular conceptions that adults should not interfere in children’s play at risk of hijacking the play situation from children and imposing the adult pedagogic objectives on them. This concern is valid; parents must resist the impulse to take over the play situation when engaging in play as their children’s play partners. This involves calibrating the leading and following positions in joint pretend play to truly collaborate with children in developing the imaginary situation of play together.

Parents and children in joint pretend play collaboratively take on roles, build scenarios with props, and create scripts in imaginary situations. In joint pretend play, each participant makes offers to the other players to shape the emerging play situation. The dynamic of joint pretend play is a continuous, collaborative building process, with each idea offered as if a new thread woven into an intricate tapestry. Each thread seamlessly joins with the other threads, just as each offer joins with the other offers. Each offer should seamlessly build upon the previous one into a singular, collaborative story. The roles are the characters, the scenarios with props are the setting and the scripts are the plot. Parents and children make offers continuously to develop the play situation, carefully building what each one offers as the pretend play situation becomes increasingly more complex and sophisticated.

Joint pretend play not only involves enacting the imaginary situation by taking on roles and creating scripts, it also involves preparing the scenario and props. Here children prepare signs for the grocery store.

What is an offer? Using a household object as a prop in the imaginary situation or making a prop from materials on hand is an offer. Adding new elements to the scenario or redesigning its organization is an offer. Creating roles, with responsibilities and specific characteristics, is another. Framing problems and proposing solutions that develop the emerging play script, is yet another. These offers can be made by children or parents while actively engaged in the play situation or while discussing and reflecting upon it (when not actively playing) to plan how to enrich the play further. Both moments, inside and outside of the active play situation, give children the opportunity to make important contributions in molding play according to their needs and wishes and give parents the chance to support their children’s development -- especially the expansion of their conceptual understanding about how the world and human relations work as they make meaning through play.

While playing together, parents can broaden and deepen children’s understanding of important concepts involved in the pretend play situation through reading a story or exploring an image.

Offers in joint pretend play can be loosely planned in advance, yet how other play partners respond cannot be predicted with certainty. Joint pretend play should emerge from parents and children’s offers, as they reflexively build upon one another’s offers collaboratively. Joint pretend play necessarily entails openness and active responsiveness, as parents and children take turns leading and following by making offers that build upon what has been previously offered and guiding the further development of the imaginary play situations being created together. The way that parents calibrate their offers in response to their children’s offers can amplify how their children see and act in the world around them, as it relates to the pretend play situation they enact.  Parents can even make offers that challenge children to respond ethically or take a stance toward what they’ve done (such as the parent taking on the role of a shoplifter or of a child throwing a tantrum in a store). Parents can prompt children with questions and build up their repertoire of ideas about the roles, scenarios, props and scripts that comprise it. Parents can also engage children in stories and investigations about the pretend play situation, importantly involving the concepts that constitute it. This empowers children to generate proposals for how they can engage in play together, making offers and taking a leading position to guide the development of joint pretend play.

Children engage in grocery shopping with their shopping lists.

In order to illustrate these points, imagine playing the pretend situation of going grocery shopping. Parents and children can set up grocery store scenarios with props that they have at home, take on different roles and create a variety of problem-solving scripts together. Parents’ offers can broaden children’s understanding of a vast array of possibilities for action in the pretend play situation (and the world), problematizing what those actions follow from (their historical and cultural origin) and what follows from those actions (consequences). For instance, the customer (parent) can make an offer to the grocery store clerk (child) by asking where the organic produce section is, if a product is non-GMO, what they’d recommend for a low-fat diet or what is on sale. Underlying all of these offers are important concepts (diet, health, environmental sustainability, budgeting, finances, etc.) which parents can introduce into the pretend play situation at opportune moments.

Responding to children’s offers collaboratively can be another way to explore concepts in play. For example, a child could make an offer to a parent by saying, “Oh, no, we’ve run out of strawberries!” The parent could build with this offer by saying, “Yes, and our bakery was going to make strawberry shortcake today. What are we going to do?” In this way, the parent heightens the emotive intensity of the play situation by building upon the initial problem. If the child is reticent to respond, the parent could think aloud, “I wonder if we should call the strawberry farm to see when the next shipment will arrive” (linking to concepts related to where food comes from) or “Our blueberries are going to go bad in another day, what could we make with them instead?” (linking to the concept of decomposition) to support the child’s next offer. These offers build up the play script, while making offers of different possible scenarios with props (How about an all-organic, bulk-based food co-op or fair trade discount brand grocery store?) and roles (Why not a small owner run grocery store or a large unionized grocery with a butcher, baker, florist, pharmacist, etc.?) are other ways to collaboratively develop the pretend play situation.    

Now more than ever, as all the people of the world deal with a global pandemic and many are socially distancing or isolating, children have less opportunities to play with other children and reap the pedagogic benefits of a play-based learning approach at school. For this reason, parents have an opportunity to engage with greater frequency in joint pretend play with their children as play partners at home. When parents and children engage in pretend play together, making offers and building upon them jointly, children learn more about the world, human relationships and themselves. They develop their ability to make their own decisions in life and take responsibility for them. They are empowered to lead meaningful lives and design their futures, all while enjoying the time that their parents are fully present with them in the moment to create something uniquely their own.


* The zone of proximal development (zpd) is what a child can do in collaboration, which he/she is unable to do yet independently.  Vygotsky argued that the zpd is more indicative of a child’s development than what he/she can do independently as it demonstrates the emerging capabilities of the child.

Sarah O. Weiler is the founder of Contemporary Education and the creator of Pedagogic Play (an early childhood curriculum).  She is a doctoral student at University College London - Institute of Education and has been a teacher and school leader for over 20 years in the USA and abroad.