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Den Day showed how important 'pretend play' is in nurseries

Article By: Sam Flatman, Outdoor Learning Specialist and Educational Consultant for Pentagon Play

On 17 June, school children across the UK participated in Save The Children’s annual Den Day. Primarily, the event is organised to raise awareness for children around the globe who lack vital resources such as water and shelter. But the art of den building itself can teach us a lot about the way nursery children adapt to critical thinking and creative problem-solving.

Sam Flatman, Outdoor Learning Specialist and Educational Consultant for Pentagon Play

Pretend play has always been a staple part of child development. The processes that take place when children exercise their creative side help them get to grips with complicated social and emotional issues.

Whilst it is all fun and games in one respect, pretend play is also a vital form of learning. Encouraging imaginative exploration should be a top priority in any nursery school as it enables children to prepare for later life.

Organised events such as Den Day are beneficial to everyone involved. Charities raise much-needed cash for a great cause and nursery practitioners are provided with the perfect opportunity to encourage pretend play in their facility. It’s not always easy to plan an inclusive activity for all your children, especially if your resources are thinly stretched. Den Day gives you a reason to focus on one particular exercise and can often be the creative spark that many children need.

Den building reignites children's passion for physical play

Nowadays, nurseries have to do battle with the bad habits of the digital age. Smartphones and tablets are often used by parents to pacify unruly children, making it difficult for nursery workers to offer alternative solutions. Even toddlers are hooked to the colourful visuals of screentime, with everything else paling in comparison. The easy thrill these devices provide is beginning to take a huge toll on the imaginations of young children, changing the way they approach learning.

What Den Day offers is a chance for children to reignite their passion for physical play. Whilst research suggests that children have become less imaginative in recent years, their capacity for creativity is still very much evident. In nursery schools, this spark needs to be nurtured, in order for children to realise their potential.

For the most part, interactive games on computer screens are solitary activities and young children need the experience of communicating with others. During the process of den building, children are able to share ideas with a group and work together to find the best solutions for their plans.

What do children gain from pretend play?

Whilst children are building dens, they are also building their ability to solve problems, make decisions and express their own individuality. The benefits of pretend play are well documented and necessary to healthy, well-rounded development. The main allure of den building for children is that dens can be anything they want them to be. The chance to create their own independent paradise is a big motivator, especially when competing against more structured activities.

As a nursery practitioner, it is your job to ensure they have everything they need to put their thoughts into action. But, this being said, you don’t necessarily have to guide them through every step of the process. If they need help with construction or choosing the right materials, then you can step in and lend a hand.

Otherwise, den building is the ideal opportunity for independent learning. Dens can even be taken outdoors, where school playground equipment can be used to make bigger and bolder creations. The flexibility of den building means the possibilities for creativity are limitless and children aren’t restricted to the adult-defined regulations of more structured games.

Backbone of social and emotional learning

Pretend play is also the backbone of social and emotional learning. Children take care of dolls and mimic the process of buying groceries so that they can better understand empathy and social interactions. The increase in screen time is reducing the chances children get to participate in pretend play, without replacing its core lessons.

Because of this, children are becoming far worse at self-regulating and more removed from a sense of community. Since you have little say over a child’s home life, it’s important that more emphasis is placed on pretend play during the time they spend in your care.

Although Den Day is only one day of the year, its appeal can be enough to encourage children to spend more time thinking and creating for themselves. Getting children excited about an event like this can prove to be a great starting point for nurturing future creativity.

Not only will children be inspired by the idea of building and exploring a new world, they will also be encouraged to draw and paint pictures of their creations. For this reason, one day of inspiration in your nursery could end up being the catalyst for a more permanent source of creativity.

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