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Pretend Play: How Caring for (Stuffed) Animals Nurtures Empathy

children pretending to be vets
Photo by David Hume Kennerly

By Rachel Ward

Fluffy kitties, big-eyed puppies, soft and cuddly bears: There’s a reason why so many children’s books feature oh-so-adorable baby animals.

Animals (or “aminals,” as you might hear your toddler say) have a special place in children’s hearts. Four-legged, furry critters awaken the spirit of kindness and empathy in children—and those are exactly the sorts of caring qualities that we love to nurture in our classrooms and in our children.

This month, we’re giving our toddlers the space and to practice being a kind and loving friend to the animals in our “dramatic play” area. Pretend play toys like stethoscopes, stuffed animals, lab coats, and bandages let kids imagine what it would be like to care for a hurt or sick animal.

For nurturing qualities like compassion and empathy, pretending to be a veterinarian is pretty powerful stuff: “Children learn that animals have needs,” says KinderCare Curriculum Editor Meg Davis, “and they learn about the important role humans play in taking care of them.”

Of course, seeing kids in dress-up clothes is pretty adorable, but pretend play also has a much bigger benefit to children’s ever-active, always-growing minds. That’s why all of our classrooms, from ages two to five, all feature places made just for pretending.

Why Is Pretend Play Important for Toddlers?

Children are soaking in new things about the world every minute of every day. That’s a lot of input! Pretending is one way kids rehash everything they’re experiencing—and imagine the possibilities. They also get to work out big feelings, build their friendships, and explore the relationships they see in the adult world in a safe, lighthearted way.

The learning benefits don’t end with social-emotional skills—especially when kids have friends with them. “By playing pretend with friends, children are getting practice at cooperation and communication, which leads to the development of executive function skills like self-regulation,” explains Davis. That means that as children work together to create and build on a scenario, they’re getting great practice at controlling their emotions and impulses.

So if your child wants to pretend at home, just say yes!

The best pretend play toys for kids are things you likely already have in your house. All you need are a few simple props and the seed of an idea, and you never know—you could be on a farm, in the mountains, or even fly to the moon!

Imagination in the House! Pretend Play Ideas For Your Toddler

1. A box

Ahoy, matey—it’s time to set sail! That plain ol’ box can transform into a big ol’ boat for your little captain to cruise the seas in with just a few art supplies (child-size scissors and some crayons should do the trick). Sail off to a tropical island, search for lost treasure, and fill the boat with animals to be a real crew!

2. A sheet

Who knows what may lurk in the dark? Drape a sheet over some chairs and other furniture, and give your explorer a flashlight. You can hide little animals or toys around the “cave,” and encourage her to find them.

3. Recycled plastic bottles

Science is all about discoveries. If you’ve got some empty (and clean) plastic bottles you aren’t using, hand them over to your mini scientist to use as beakers or telescopes and let his big ideas take over! You can even make the science action more real by filling up a plastic tub with water, bubbles, and medium-size rocks for some real honest-to-goodness experimenting. Safety tip: Always supervise your tot around water.

4. Sticks

Stroll the park or the woods, and nature provides all that’s needed for fun. Witness the simple pleasures of…a stick. In a young child’s hands, sticks can become wands and transform a walk into a wondrous adventure: Use the magic to turn a log into a snake, a tree into a giant, or a rock into a whimsical animal of her imagination.

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