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Playing Pretend

Updated on September 28, 2015

Children Playing Pretend 1

Children from an orphanage in Surabaya, Indonesia dressing up in their prettiest/favourite clothes for Dress Up day as they learn about different traditional clothings nd cultures in the English class that I taught.
Children from an orphanage in Surabaya, Indonesia dressing up in their prettiest/favourite clothes for Dress Up day as they learn about different traditional clothings nd cultures in the English class that I taught.

Children Playing Pretend 2

Children from Khalid Walid centre based in Kampung Chnang, Cambodia dressing up as celebrities, policeman and fireman as part of an English lesson on common jobs and their respective outfits.
Children from Khalid Walid centre based in Kampung Chnang, Cambodia dressing up as celebrities, policeman and fireman as part of an English lesson on common jobs and their respective outfits.


I am pretty sure most, if not all, of us have played pretend before especially when we were younger. Well, I sure did and actually I still do sometimes. I think playing pretend is quite good for everyone regardless of age or gender. According to the urban dictionary website, 'play pretend' refers to imagination or role-play. One tends to agree that a healthy amount of imagination and role-playing does not hurt a child, it instead helps in the child's development. Plenty of research have been done to back that claim theoretically and empirically. For example, a study by Russ (1999) looked at how playing pretend is positively linked to creative and divergent thinking in children. In addition to that, both Fein (1981) and Bergen (2002) researched the positive effects of playing pretend on children's social and cognitive development in general. Thus, it is evident that playing pretend is beneficial for children.

However, what I am suggesting is slightly different. I see 3 possible ways that playing pretend can be good for adults as well (as long as it is not too excessive). Let me try to convince you in the short write up that follows.

Adults Playing Pretend

Me, Suhaimi Zainal Shah, all dressed up and ready to be more than I'd ever be. A diplomat.
Me, Suhaimi Zainal Shah, all dressed up and ready to be more than I'd ever be. A diplomat.

3 Reasons Adults Should Play Pretend

1. Acting one step ahead

If an adult imagines and pretends that he is going to achieve greatness and commits himself to take actions on making the vision a reality, he can and will achieve it. Referring to Richard Templar's self help book titled "The rules of work", one could consider role playing as a form of applying rule 7: 'Act one step ahead'. In his book, Templar recommended readers to dress, talk, act and think one step ahead explaining that if someone already looks and behaves like he/she has been promoted, chances are that he/she will be. Nevertheless, it is important to take Templar's advice with a pinch of salt as merely playing pretend does not guarantee a promotion or any form of success for that matter.

Always remember the saying, "If there's a will, there's a way" and you would be motivated to act on the dream future that you once had imagined. Having a clear goal in mind and a strong desire to achieve that goal definitely helps. Besides that, role-playing different stakeholders and thinking of their rational self interests is also a good way to develop empathy and a better understanding of others' plight helps in achieving one's goals in life too. Therefore, alternative applications of playing pretend can actually help adults in achieving success.

2. Give hope and courage to others

An adult who plays pretend can influence those around him/her positively, especially those who look up to him/her. In times of crisis, for example, a leader must first put aside his/her doubts and fears before stepping up to lead his/her followers. The leader can by means of role-playing or by putting up a bold front encourage others around him to stay strong, be brave and remain hopeful. Such calming effects on others will help in the critical decision making processes during the crisis management. Klann (2003) recognized this potential reassuring nature of leaders in his book on crisis leadership. Although his book used military examples based on true scenarios in the second World War for his prologue, Klann mentions that "Nothing tests a leader like a crisis." and he relates the cases of crises to civilian leaders in ordinary organisations and corporations. Thus, it is suffice to say that any person pretending to be brave and bold when stepping up to lead in a crisis has almost the same effects of being bold and brave naturally.

Another more specific scenario that you could think of to understand this point is how a parent or both parents of a child would put up their most convincing, strong and fearless front just to appease their child and not cause extra panic or fear in him/her when caught in the middle of a natural disaster. Henceforth, playing pretend as adults could train up a useful skillset of casting aside all expressions of fear or apprehension and it might come in handy in future days of crisis or disaster.

3. Keep your friends close and enemies closer

This last point of mine is slightly more controversial. I am suggesting that sometimes as adults we could actually play pretend and act like we are perfectly fine or happy with something or someone that we do not exactly like for selfish reasons. In a way, people who play pretend can be considered hypocrites. Just like the fictional character Don Corleone of the Italian mafia in the Godfather trilogy written by Mario Puzo, sometimes it is essential to keep one's friends close and one's enemies closer by pretending to be on good terms with them (Scarnati, 2002). This would enable one to monitor closely and also wait for the right time to intervene or even strike. However, do not get me wrong. I am not advocating violence or even animosity of any sort. In actual fact, I consider this application of playing pretend more of a means to an end, the end of conflict.

Furthermore, a person's survival could be determined by how well he/she pretends. This is because there are scenarios when one's life is at stake just because of differing ideologies or beliefs. In those cases, pretending to be something or someone you are not seems to be a reasonable trade-off to losing your life but this may not be true for everyone. Some will argue that life is not worth living if one can't stand up for one's beliefs and principles. To each his/her own


Taking into account the various benefits that playing pretend brings for children as well as for grown-ups, I hereby recommend that everyone devote some time off from their busy lives to forget the notion of 'work hard and play hard' and focus instead to not only work smart but also play smart. It is about time we start playing smart by playing pretend.

The truth is that the ability to play pretend is already innate in our selves so it is not a matter of learning something new but rather it's about recalling and reliving the days of our youth. As you are young at heart regardless of your age, playing pretend will only come naturally back to you as you make a habit of imagining, role-playing and day dreaming your day away once again.

Do you still play pretend once in a while?

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Learn more about 'Playing Pretend'. Consider getting this book.

4 stars for Book on Playing Pretend


Fein, G. G. (1981). Pretend play in childhood: An integrative review. Child development, 1095-1118.

Russ, S. W., Robins, A. L., & Christiano, B. A. (1999). Pretend play: Longitudinal prediction of creativity and affect in fantasy in children. Creativity Research Journal, 12(2), 129-139.

Scarnati, J. T. (2002). The Godfather theory of management: an exercise in power and control. Management Decision, 40(9), 834-841.

Bergen, D. (2002). The role of pretend play in children's cognitive development. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 4(1), n1.

Klann, G. (2003). Crisis leadership: Using military lessons, organizational experiences, and the power of influence to lessen the impact of chaos on the people you lead. Center for Creative Leadership.

Templar, R. (2010). The Rules of Work, Expanded Edition: A Definitive Code for Personal Success. FT Press.

© 2015 Suhaimi Zainal Shah


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