FANTASY PLAY:  Learn to Play, Learn to Learn

In Vivian Gussin Paley’s book, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play, she cites the landmark work of Sara Smilansky which found that children who lacked the skills necessary for fantasy play also struggled in other areas of classroom learning. High-quality play, she found, could be taught by children, to children and appeared to be the “necessary precursor for every other kind of learning in a classroom” (pg 71).

In truth, real education is about processing ideas, and fantasy play is the fertile ground where children’s ideas are scattered, nurtured and allowed to flourish. In fantasy play, children are able to use abstract and representational thinking, allowing a bowl to become a hat, an empty pot to become a steamy aromatic soup, or a pile of pillows to become a boiling lava flow.

While some may see this ability to “live in another world” as simply being disconnected and distracted, it actually shows an advance in cognitive processing. To move from the realm of the concrete to that which is symbolic and intangible is necessary to process ideas, consider theories and process the consequences of actions before acting.  This self-guided play requires planning, regulating and negotiating. In short, the act of “acting” strengthens the executive functions of the brain.


While some would prefer to eliminate this time for fantasy play in favour of more reading instruction, it is actually this ability to live in the abstract of the pretend world that allows children to function in the symbolism of the written world. It is difficult for a child to learn that lines on paper can represent words, ideas and stories, but for a child who has created and acted out his own story, or chosen objects as symbols in that story (a ball becomes a cat, a blanket becomes a lake, etc.) the leap to reading becomes a more simple and natural step.

The language and creative skills used to create and act out these fantastic stories are the same skills that allow children to understand, create, and process written stories. Reading comprehension after all, is the ability to understand, connect, and draw meaning from stories. And stories are really what pretend play is all about. Problem solving is another critical skill developed when children are surrounded by their own stories. While we may see only children caught up in a land of make-believe they are actually honing highly marketable skills. Think about it: any man or woman who can identify a problem, come up with a creative and viable solution, and then negotiate with others to provide for its implementation, will always have a great deal of job security. And these abilities are inherently fostered in fantasy play as children do just that.

Social skills are deeply nurtured through fantasy play as well. In fact, it is often referred to as socio-dramatic play, because of its strong social component. Negotiating with others and orchestrating roles takes a great deal of social finesse. Additionally, taking on the role of someone else builds a child’s capacity to see things through another’s eyes – an exercise in abstract thinking that leads to the growth of empathy. Experimenting with these various social roles also helps a child to understand the inner workings of social relationships.

Closely tied to social skills is psychological health, which is also promoted through fantasy play. Children use pretend play to process major events in their lives, allowing them to have power when they felt powerless or to simply make sense of it all. A child who was involved in a car accident may recreate similar events, “taking people to the hospital” over and over again. Or a child with a new baby in the family may take on the role of the new mom or even of the baby, giving her a sense of control in a situation where she feels she has none. Therapists even use “Play Therapy” as a prevalent and successful practice where children are helped to discuss, process, and rehearse skills within the naturally therapeutic medium of play


In a classroom setting, there is often a fantasy play area set aside for this crucial type of play-based learning.  While this area may be its home, anyone who has closely observed young children can testify that this is not the only area where this type of play takes place. The block area and sensory table are frequent homes to this type of play as well – blocks become secret fortresses and rice becomes a threatening snowstorm. Outdoor play areas become ever-changing sets as children travel through the wilderness, under the sea, and into other worlds. In truth, nowhere is safe from the transformative powers of a child’s imagination. Even when we are unaware, a child may be creating and pretending, assigning roles, and imagining scenes without ever saying a word.

By Carol Fitz-Gibbon