Pretending to be someone else seems like pure play, but it actually builds serious brainpower. "Acting fosters children's language proficiency, vocabulary development, and storytelling skills," says Wendy Mages, Ed.D., an independent researcher in human development and psychology.
Toddlers: Take a Trip
Flip through a photo album and help your child relive an experience. Encourage him to perform the actions along with the story and use sensory-rich details, like how the apple in a photo smelled and tasted. Having a mental picture of what words mean is a critical skill for new readers.
Preschoolers: ID the Object
Collect a bunch of items from around the house and put them in a bag. Take turns choosing an item, and try to answer the question "What else can you imagine it is?" by using the object in new and creative ways. (Perhaps the colander becomes a hat or a face mask.) Besides providing a cute photo op, this will help your child learn to think on her feet.
School-Age Kids: Bring Books to Life
Read your child's favorite book while he performs the actions. Explain how to dramatize tricky words. ("Gnash" is a toughie in Where the Wild Things Are.) Or pick two characters and put on the "play" together, trying to recall what happens next without the book. Invite an audience (stuffed animals count).