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Using Pretend Play to Conquer Fear

Pretend play

My two-year-old daughter thinks a lot. She likes to understand everything, and when she is confronted with new experiences – that she can’t understand as well because they are new – she can become anxious or upset. Pretend play is one of the best tools we have found for helping her to conquer her fears. The set-up can be very simple – the cookies on the tray above, for example, were slices of “cake” for a pretend birthday party.

Sometimes we role-play real situations where she got upset or anxious, using toys to explore other ways of approaching with a problem. Other times we simply play something she enjoys – like hosting a birthday party – to help her calm down before something that we know is likely to make her feel more stressed out.

Happy two-year-old

The power of pretend play is amazing – it provides a safe space to practice being more confident, as well as to face fears. Yesterday she was incredibly brave during a doctor’s visit – not even crying during a blood draw. We had read stories about visiting the doctor as preparation. When she came home, she and her siblings played doctor for a couple hours – exploring the new knowledge they had gained from the real-life experience of a doctor’s visit.

What do you see your children learn through pretend play?

MaryAnne at Mama Smiles
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MaryAnne is a craft loving educator, musician, photographer, and writer who lives in Silicon Valley with her husband Mike and their four children.

16 thoughts on “Using Pretend Play to Conquer Fear”

  1. Tommy is excited about starting play school, but he’s nervous, too. Especially because he can be very passive in the ordinary tussles over toys that happen in school situations (he has visited school a few times). He asks me to play a game he made up called, “Mine Mine,” and he asks, “Mommy, can you be the Bad Kid at School?” (he invented this role)

    In this game I approach him when he’s playing with a toy and I say, “Is that your ball? I want it! Mine, mine!” and I try to grab it from him. Sometimes he holds tight, sometimes he runs away, sometimes he says, “No!”

    He’s practicing developing his assertiveness, and I love how he uses pretend play to get there.

    1. I’m always amazed at how intuitively children use role play to explore a difficult situation like this!

  2. Very cool. As parents, sometimes I think we can forget how important pretend play is for kids. But it is such a vital way for them to work through issues they have.

  3. I have a kiddo with sensory issues and we write out a story in book form and have him illustrate it when there is something stressful coming up. In the story he talks about his fears and what to expect in the situation. Of course, the story ends on a happy note. He seems to like the stories and saves them for the next time.

    1. What a great way to prep him! I’ll have to try this with my six-year-old – thank you for sharing!

  4. ahh yes… Bear gets worked up at times… it’s funny, when something does somewhat upset him in real life, he incorporates it into his pretend play.

  5. I love this last photo. Lily’s hair is getting so long! We also role play certain situations with dolls sometimes, mostly to combat Anna’s habit of bossing her friends around.

  6. Elisa | blissfulE

    Lily is lovely. I’m so glad you are able to help her work though ways to cope with the more difficult parts of life.

  7. I think this is such a valuable tool. Helping children cope and learn to confront their fears is something they’ll use throughout their lives. The fact that she didn’t cry during a blood draw if amazing!

    1. I was shocked – it took them three tries to find the vein, too. She just sat and watched. Not something every kid will do, no matter how you prep them for the experience, but it was nice.

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