He-Man. Skeletor. An eternal struggle between good and evil - with pauses for slurps from a juice box. So was the scene enacted on the stage of my bedroom floor when I was a kid, with the action figure "actors" lumbering through the knee-high shag carpeting to do battle, strike up a conversation, or repair a downed vehicle. Although I played with my He-Man, Star Wars, and Transformer characters largely because I had the chance to reenact and add to some of my favorite movies and shows, there are benefits to engaging in pretend play beyond just having fun.
Pretend play can foster language development.
When a child uses language to describe and organize a play scheme, they are essentially producing a "narrative," or a verbal storyline. Children also can use language to describe "how" and "why" certain things happened (e.g., "Because Skeletor's tank ran out of gas, he has to take a taxi to get to his fight with He-Man"). Such skills help improve a child's ability make more logical connections in their language use, such as sustaining and adding to a topic of conversation.
For an advanced example of what a developed pretend play scheme can convey through language, consider this account of a recent session I had. My client and I were at "our house" (a therapy room) relaxing, when our math teacher came over to give us some homework. As he opened the door of our house and came in, we hid under the table to avoid having to do the homework. He called our mother to find out where we were hiding - I was the voice of the teacher, my client was the voice of our mother. Our mother told him where she thought we would be hiding, and eventually he found me under the table, and gave me some homework. My client was upset that the teacher was making me do homework, so he ran up to the teacher and "pushed" him. He was tried and convicted of pushing a teacher by a court of law, and was sentenced to prison. After a daring escape from a prison transport bus, I picked him up in a van, and we started a new life together living "on the lam," as he said. This play scheme represented over 25 minutes of us engaged in a back-and-forth dialogue representing abstract ideas and problem-solving using language. *Disclaimer - neither of us are felons, and we would never push a teacher - that is the "pretend" part.*
Pretend play involves taking on the perspectives of others, an important step in social-emotional development.
Many children with autism spectrum disorders have a deficit in what is termed "theory of mind," or, broadly, the ability to think about what another person is thinking. Pretend play offers a chance for the child to develop this ability to learn how one's actions or words might affect the emotions or thoughts of another person. For example, He-Man might have bought Orco a new sword, but he did not buy one for Man-at-Arms, and consequently Man-at-Arms feels jealous and sad because he did not get a gift, as well. Using play to explore emotional states, as well as the causality of emotions, can help children learn how to recognize their own emotions, as well as how what one does can impact the emotions of others.