Young children’s minds swirl with imaginative thoughts, stories, and fantasies that often manifest in pretend play. One day they’re in their toy kitchen, microwaving apples and frying pieces of toast for the family. The next, they’ve gathered their band of stuffed animals to embark on a journey to slay a fire-breathing dragon.
So, why is pretend play important?
Characterized by make-believe, role-play, object substitution, and nonliteral behavior, pretend play allows children to explore their minds and develop cognitive, social, problem-solving, and creative thinking skills.1 It may also boost children’s emotional regulation, linguistic competence, and “theory of mind,” or awareness that their thoughts can differ from their playmates’.2
Types of Pretend Play
Unlike physical play, such as building blocks or playing hide-and-seek, pretend play involves nonliteral action, such as stretching one fist in the air and placing the other fist on their waist to show that they’re flying through the air like a superhero. Children will also use objects to create make-believe scenarios. For example, a blanket and broom may become the mast of a ship or a toy caboose may become a telephone.
What is pretend play in childhood? Pretend play can include:
- Role play – Children adopt different characters or different roles, such as parents, doctors, teachers, firefighters, or superheroes.
- Dramatic play – Kids begin to act out different scenarios or tell a story using dialogue, costumes, and characters.
- Fantasy play – Children deep-dive into their imaginations to create make-believe worlds and creatures, like a five-horned unicorn or a room filled with cotton candy.
- Realistic play – Children may engage in pretend cooking or construction, or they might pretend to fly an airplane or ride an elephant.
A young child's pretend play can be further categorized in two different ways:
- Structured pretend play – Often referred to as goal-orientated play, structured play is a type of imaginative play that involves rules or objectives.3 Structured play is often adult-led or parent-directed and may include playing a board game that sparks the important role of imagination in childhood. This type of creative play leaves room for learning opportunities and can help children build their problem-solving and communication skills.
Open-ended pretend play – Unstructured, or open-ended play, is child-directed play that provides space for children to engage in creative play that’s not goal-orientated or rule-bound.
P4 Instead, children can utilize their creative imaginations and express themselves freely. For example, a group of young children may role-play as a troop of soldiers that must reach a certain tree at the edge of the yard to complete their mission. Oftentimes, children will create different roles and characters, introduce props and costumes, and create a storyline to expand their gameplay. Younger children may use dolls or figures in their make-believe.
What Does Pretend Play Look Like In Different Ages?
Generally, how children pretend play will evolve throughout their childhoods. According to Jan Natanson in “Learning Through Play: A parent’s guide to the first five years,” there are five stages of imaginative play a young child will experience:5
- Stage 1: Enactive Naming – Babies 0 to 12 months old will become engaged in an activity and begin identifying objects to demonstrate their knowledge, yet they won’t actively play pretend. For example, a baby may copy the actions of their caregivers, such as picking up a comb or attempting to brush their hair. They’ll also engage in peek-a-boo.
- Stage 2: Autosymbolic Schemes – At 12 months old, children will begin to play pretend. More specifically, toddlers will use props to represent other objects in symbolic play.6 They’ll pick up a toy and imitate talking on the phone or scootch a toy car across the carpet and make engine noises with their mouths to demonstrate their cognitive skills.
- Stage 3: Decentered Symbolic Schemes – From 12 to 24 months, children’s imaginative play may become more advanced and they’ll begin to involve others in their play schemes, such as dolls, stuffed animals, caregivers, or playmates.7 This is when you’ll observe your child gathering their favorite toys for a make-believe tea party. During this stage, children will begin to develop communication and problem-solving skills, as well as “theory of mind” to recognize different perspectives and ways of doing things, often as a result of observing how those around them play. From 15 to 18 months, toddlers will also begin playing dress-up and copying their caregivers.8
- Stage 4: Sequencing Pretend Acts – As toddlers grow older, their pretend play can become more logically driven and they’ll act out action sequences. For example, when creating a make-believe meal, they might cook and prepare the food, before giving it to their parents or teddy bear.9>/sup> This stage can strengthen children’s contextual and memory skills.5
- Stage 5: Planned Pretend – At this stage, preschool-age children and older will have an idea of what they want to play and how they’ll do it. For example, a child embarking to slay a dragon may gather props, such as a broom that acts as a sword, a blanket for a cape, and a book for a shield. They may also pretend to be a teacher and create a lesson plan or role-play as their caregivers as they clean the house. In this stage, children will develop advanced social, communication, and problem-solving skills.
All that said, pretend play is believed to be critical to encouraging cognitive development and social skills for kids. Engaging in fantasy and symbolic play can help children develop divergent thinking, which allows them to come up with diverse story ideas. It may also help children integrate how objects are related. For example, they’ll identify a purple sphere as a plum, as well as a fruit.2
Both parent-directed and child-led imaginative play can enhance children’s creativity. A study found that children who regularly play make-believe are more likely to be creatively successful later in life, specifically noting Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant awardees.2
There’s an emotional side to pretend play that can be essential for identifying the emotional strengths of a child.
Playing make-believe, particularly when unstructured, allows children to freely explore and express their negative and positive emotions. As a result, they develop self-regulation skills that may help them:2
- Reduce aggression
- Learn patience
- Practice empathy, specifically when playing with dolls or other children10
- Learn politeness and respect
- Think critically and creatively
- Communicate effectively
- Practice and express independence
How Kids Perceive Pretend Play
Typically, toddlers aged 12 to 24 months become aware that they’re playing pretend. When sipping on a pretend drink or talking on a toy phone, they’ll often look to or smile at their caregivers to indicate that they’re pretending.5
However, they often play with suspended disbelief, meaning that they have a dual mindset and worldview. Children understand that unicorns don’t exist in the real world, but they’re willing to believe that they do when playing make-believe.5 This allows them to freely engage in the storyline as if it were real.
Likewise, adults do this, too. When watching a play or a movie, we understand that the stories we’re seeing aren’t real, but in the moment, we suspend reality to accept the premise and play along.
When embracing their imagination in childhood, many children adore playing make-believe, as they can:
- Explore many worlds
- Discover their likes and dislikes
- Cultivate their abilities
- Pursue their passions and interests
Pretend Play Activities
While infants and young babies often require adult-led playtime, in which parents or caregivers will facilitate certain activities, allowing children to engage in unstructured, independent play without adult intervention can help children:
- Expand their imaginations
- Establish problem-solving skills
- Develop self-confidence
- Emotionally regulate
For babies, caregivers can encourage pretend play by speaking with enthusiasm and responding to squeals and coos, singing visual songs, such as the Itsy Bitsy Spider, and modeling creative behaviors, such as spinning a toy car around the room or pretending to eat toy food.
While toddlers aged two to three have more advanced ideas about pretend play, they can still benefit from guidance or encouragement, such as introducing certain props or dress-up clothes.
Children three and older, however, can often facilitate their own make-believe play on their own and may engage in various pretend play activities, such as:
- Playing house by cleaning or caring for dolls
- Making meals in a make-believe restaurant
- Using puppets to role-play
- Pretending to be a vet by caring for their stuffed animals
- Using a cardboard box as a car, spaceship, or airplane
- Hosting a tea party
- Building a city with couch cushions and blankets
- Running around the house with a sheet wrapped around their neck to fly like a superhero
Children with autism, ADHD, developmental delays, or learning and language disorders may also benefit from a diverse collection of toys in the form of a prop box. Caregivers can include building blocks, figurines, dolls, toy vehicles, activity cards, and storybooks that help children stay engaged and play creatively.
Ignite the Imagination With Slumberkins
Pretend play provides space for children of all ages to dive into their imaginations to cultivate unique worlds and storylines. As early as one year old, a child can use symbolic play to explore their world and develop their cognitive skills, emotional regulation, and empathy.
To encourage children to lead open-ended imaginative play, caregivers can provide a collection of mentally stimulating toys and props that unbox children’s imaginations. With Bigfoot, Unicorn, or Yak by their sides, children can dive into their imaginative worlds with a Kinspiration Kit by Slumberkins that features storybooks, world-building trinkets, and engaging activity cards.
When connecting with kids, explore the endless stories and possibilities with Slumberkins.
- Weisberg, Deena Skolnick. “Pretend play.” Wiley interdisciplinary reviews. Cognitive science vol. 6,3 (2015): 249-61. doi:10.1002/wcs.1341
- Kaufman, Scott Barry. "The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development." Scientific American. 11 November, 2013. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/the-need-for-pretend-play-in-child-development/
- "Unstructured Vs Structured Play." Playground Centre. https://www.playgroundcentre.com/unstructured-vs-structured-play/
- Mohan, Megha. "Pretend play in pre-schoolers: Need for structured and free play in pre-schools." South African Journal of Childhood Education. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/359767512_Pretend_play_in_pre-schoolers_Need_for_structured_and_free_play_in_pre-schools
- McIlroy, Tanja. "Stages of Pretend Play." Empowered Parents. https://empoweredparents.co/stages-of-pretend-play/
- Lewis, Rhona. "Symbolic Play." 28 May, 2020. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/childrens-health/symbolic-play
- Rescorla, L, and M Goossens. “Symbolic play development in toddlers with expressive specific language impairment (SLI-E).” Journal of speech and hearing research vol. 35,6 (1992): 1290-302. doi:10.1044/jshr.3506.1290
- "Imagining, Creating and Play: Toddlers." Raisingchildren.net.au. https://raisingchildren.net.au/toddlers/play-learning/play-toddler-development/imagining-play-toddlers.
- "Pretend Play." NHS. https://www.nhsggc.org.uk/kids/life-skills/play-leisure/pretend-play/
- Aanestad, Emma et al. "What Is Happening in Children’s Brains When They Are Playing Pretend?" Frontiers. https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2021.644083