“Do you have a minute?” asked my daughter’s preschool teacher. “Of course,” I replied, “Is something wrong?”
“Oh, no, but I wanted to tell you what happened this afternoon. Sarah* organized a pretend wedding. In fact, she was the officiant, with prayers and marriage vows and everything. She sounded just like a real minister. We’d never seen anything like it!”
Spiritual and religious practices fascinate children. Like cultural and family traditions, they offer rich material for children to explore imaginatively. And research shows that imaginative play serves many important functions in children’s learning.
Perhaps the most common way children use such play is to imitate and explore what they see in the world. Pretending to be a wedding officiant lets them repeat words and actions that they associate with celebrating love. Playing house offers opportunities to explore familial roles and responsibilities. Reenacting a wellness checkup reinforces messages they heard about how to live a healthy life.
Pretend play also empowers children to face their fears. If they feel anxious in social situations, they can play the part of someone more confident than themselves and imaginatively try out different attitudes and behaviors. They can offer their stuffed animals or younger siblings the comfort and support they hope to receive from others. The play scenarios they devise can even help them plan how they will respond the next time they feel overwhelmed by a difficult situation.
Children use shared imaginative play to negotiate friendships as well. Deciding who will be the couple and who the officiant builds negotiation skills. Determining the sequence of events teaches the arts of communication and compromise. And as the play unfolds, all the participants discover that they bring different experiences and expectations to the scenario, which can help them appreciate diversity.
As parents and caregivers, the role we play is just as important as the ones children create for themselves. We can act as either stage managers or play leaders. Stage managers simply create a space for imaginative play by providing props (doctor’s kit, baby doll and sling, religious artifacts) that children might choose to use. Play leaders take a more proactive role by inserting themselves into children’s scenarios with suggestions about where the script might go next.
As a stage manager, help your child engage in explicitly spiritual pretend play by creating a box or corner filled with spiritual or religious artifacts (e.g., battery-operated candles, a play structure that resembles your place of worship, icons, ritual dishes). Encourage your child to explore and use the items however they wish. Read spiritual or religious stories and add items from the stories to the collection so they can reenact the stories in their own way.
As a play leader, join your child in pretend play by adopting an imaginary role yourself. Become the wedding musician and ask your child what song you should play for the happy couple. Be a guest at the Hanukkah dinner and wonder where the afikomen has gone. Light a candle and compose a prayer together. Let your own imagination guide you and your child into new ways of seeing the world.
*This name has been changed