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Pretend Play Matters: Playing School

playing pretend school

Playing school was one of my favorite games – especially before I started school (I was unschooled until I was seven years old, back before unschooling was popular). We had a huge, classroom-sized chalkboard in our bedroom in the first house I lived in, and my siblings and I spent many happy hours playing school and drawing on it. My kids don’t have the wall space for that kind of a board, but they have made great use of this simple easel from IKEA!

My kids enjoyed playing with a school bag full of interesting learning activities before they started school, and pretend school continues to be a favorite game for them, even though they go to real school for hours every day. They design learning games, process disciplinary issues that come up in their real classrooms, and reinforce new skills by teaching them to teach other! Even their toys get educated – here are two classrooms, inhabited by a diverse population made up of Littlest Pet Shop animals, squinkies, and cars.

small world pretend school play

My brother and I essentially taught ourselves to read by playing school with phonics tapes and worksheets my mom supplied, and Emma and Johnny have done the same. My kids have always had handwriting worksheets available, and – so far – they have effortlessly developed good handwriting.

Not every kid will teach themselves handwriting, and my kids have their own things that are hard for them – learning to ride bikes and other gross motor skills, for example. So we focus our family time on the things they need more support to learn, and leave them on their own to continue to hone their strengths!

Do your kids play school? What kinds of learning come easily to them, and what skills have you had to work on more as a family? Did you enjoy playing school as a child?

MaryAnne lives in Silicon Valley with her Stanford professor husband Mike and their four children. She writes about parenting through education, creativity, and play. Mama Smiles - Joyful Parenting is a space to share crafts, hands on learning activities, and family outings that enrich lives and bring families together.

22 thoughts on “Pretend Play Matters: Playing School”

  1. My kids are so much like yours! They love to play school too, especially my daughter, the little teacher! My son even gets in on it though. He loves to quiz me on thing I am not sure he knows. I play along ; )

    Bike riding? Not so much. My daughter IS asking for swimming lessons but mostly because she is really into mermaids and wants me to make her a mermaid tale like one we saw on YouTube.

    I am really looking forward Adventure to Fitness we won from you – I think my kids will love that!

  2. I’d never thought of keeping handwriting worksheets around the house. My kids are great readers, but their handwriting is terrible. I just printed some worksheets. Great idea!

  3. Elisa | blissfulE

    Emma is such a beautiful and engaging teacher! When my kids play school, which is not very often, it is mostly sitting on benches with books, and then making jokes. They have no idea what school is like, I guess? I have tried to describe it, and my descriptions must be lacking. I think I’ve never pointed out the part about the teacher standing up front…

    Once I figured out to use handwriting worksheets to go with the Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons book (where they write two sounds per lesson), it has been a huge boost to my younger children’s handwriting. I wish I had thought of it before my second child was halfway through!

    1. She does a wonderful job playing teacher!

      I remember lunch time getting a LOT of attention when I played school at age 5 and 6 – then as I approached age 7 it turned into more serious academic pursuits. I did have older siblings in school, so I knew a little bit about it.

  4. We love our IKEA easel a friend, who was downsizing, gave us. I decided to superglue some sport paraphernalia on ours and paint the chalkboard with magnet paint then repaint over with chalkboard paint. J plays with his magnetic alphabet pieces on the chalkboard side (the fridge got really crowded), and it’s perfect for our younger friends whom I don’t trust with the whiteboard markers. Ever since J got it for Christmas, he’s been drawing and writing better. We do a lot with math at our house (negotiating, counting, adding/subtracting). It’s just an everyday thing, but I think he’ll be well prepared when he enters kindergarten. Teaching J has to be one of my favorite things about being a mommy.

    1. We should probably do more math – all the research I have seen shows that that is much more important for kids to be learning early than literacy (in the long run).

  5. I love that photo of Emma teaching. I haven’t seen my kids play school on their own yet – maybe since they don’t really get what a classroom situation is like but when friends have come over and initiated school play my girls have been willing students. I love that you, and your kids, learned to read by playing school and I’m also going to print some handwriting sheets – great idea!

  6. I played school ALL THE TIME. I would play to an extreme. I wanted to be a teacher. That’s what i thought I would be. I had folders that I would hand out to everyone in the class everyday. The folders had worksheets in them (which I made up myself).

    I should have been a teacher, I think – but when everything got so dangerous – and the lack of pay – it just didn’t seem worth it.

    My kids don’t play school. The mostly play things like tea party, store, restaurant, dolls (even my son).

    no school yet. Maybe it has something to do with us homeschooling. Who knows.

    I work on the things they need help with in school. I incorporate it into the curriculum. For example, the handwriting. Ava needs help with cutting, so we will be doing more cutting activities.

    We tried unschooling for less than a year. We didn’t do it long enough, but I didn’t see Hadyn learning how to read or write. In March, we changed. If given the choice, he would just play all day.

  7. we do a lot of pretend play here, pretend school, pretend rocket ship, pretend church, pretend house you name it… and sometime mama’s joins in the fun!!!

  8. Thanks for the insight about how you structure your time. Concentrating on what they find challenging and giving them freedom where they excel. That seems wise.

  9. My girls did love playing school to teach younger siblings. They liked to make up quiz sheets which the younger kids had to do. They were so proud then they taught them a skill or fact. Now, my older kids teach younger ones soccer skills like a fancy 1:1 move.

  10. wow! that’s amazing! my son is somewhat resistant to practicing his letters, no matter how fun i think i’ve created the activity to be. lately, i’ve been bribing him, lol #mommyfail

  11. We spent hours playing school during the summers when I was a kid. I forgot about how important pretend play was until I had kids myself and then watching them it all came back. How truly invaluable this kind of activity is for kids. I’m pretty sure it goes deeper than we realize. Good post.

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