Once upon a time a child said, “Let’s pretend!” and whole world was born.
Pretend play, also known as imaginative play or role play, is a form of play that invites children to step into another's shoes, exploring the world from different perspectives. This play style emerges once children have developed the capacity for symbolic play, allowing them to use objects, actions, or ideas to represent other objects, actions, or ideas. A block can become a magical treasure, and a cardboard box, a spaceship. Through pretend play, children navigate complex life situations in a safe and controlled environment.
Why Pretend Play Matters
Pretend play is a gateway to numerous cognitive, social, emotional, and language benefits. It often involves themes of good and bad, allowing children to work through moral dilemmas and foster an understanding of right and wrong. It also nurtures empathy, as children "live" the experiences of their characters. Pretend play supports language development too, with children often narrating their actions, using new words and phrases. It's a breeding ground for creativity as well, with everyday items transformed into props for their imaginative games.
Types of pretend play
This is where a child uses one object to stand in for another.
This cardboard box is a car. I am driving.
This is where a child pretends to be someone or something else, such as a doctor, a teacher, or a dinosaur.
Like role play, but with others. Your child creates a complex, shared narrative, often involving multiple roles.
I am the teacher. You are the child. You have to be naughty. Take the pencil and drop it in the bin.
This type of play goes beyond real-world scenarios and involves imaginary characters, settings, or situations.
I am Sir Knight! And you are Flappy, the dragon. The bed is my castle.
How pretend play develops
Infants explore through their senses and motor actions. They are in the here and now and not yet ready for symbolic play. But by the age of two this starts to change. Your toddler will feed a toy with a pretend spoon or drink an imaginary drink from an empty cup.
It’s not ‘real’ pretend play yet, but we’re getting closer.
Around the time of their second birthday, children begin to use symbols and engage in more complex pretend play. At the beginning of this stage, play is often solitary or parallel (playing alongside others but not with them). As children grow older, they start to engage in cooperative play, playing together with others and sharing a common goal.
Once children reach school age, their capacity for logical thinking develops. They can understand rules. Not only can they follow games like hopscotch or tic tac toe but they start to incorporate rules into their pretend play.
I am the policeman and you are the crook. When I touch you that means you are arrested. You have to freeze. But if another crook touches you, you are free.
We have come a long way from feeding teddies with a toy spoon.
Nurturing pretend play
The best way to foster pretend play is to offer the right materials and get out of the way. Your child instinctively understands what to do., parents and caregivers can provide a variety of props and non-prescriptive items that children can repurpose for their games. From blocks and play food to costumes and play silks, these materials can serve as a foundation for countless imaginative scenarios. Encouraging reading is also beneficial, as role-play often originates from shared stories.
Five pretend play prompts
Need some inspiration to get started? Try one of the following set-ups.
Grocery Store: Use empty food containers, emergent writing and, vegetables and a shopping bag. Will you be the shopkeeper or the shopper? Will you snag a bargain?
See Play Kitchen
Doctor's Clinic: A doctor’s bag, band-aids, empty pill bottles and toy syringes. A visit to the doctor’s is a memorable event for a child, one they are keen to recreate at home.
Post Office: Use old letters, envelopes and stamps. Make a post box from an old shoe box, get your satchel and deliver that mail! This can also be an opportunity to practise number and letter recognition and emergent writing.
School: School may not have started yet but your child knows just what to expect. It’s easy to make a pretend classroom with books, notebooks and a chalkboard or dry erase board. Your dolls and stuffed animals can be the pupils.
Whether it’s fantasy play or something closer to home, pretend play is central to your child’s learning and development.
And it’s easy to do. Give your child the time and space, sit back and watch the stories unfold.