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Do your kids pretend to be teachers or parents, mimic characters in a beloved TV series, or dress up as doctors, superheroes, or pirates? You’ve probably noticed your children’s imagination gets engaged as they immerse themselves in play.
Imaginative or pretend play is essentially a form of free play where children can role-play and explore the world from other perspectives. During these periods, they act out experiences they have had or seen. Kids may even use imaginative play to act out how they see a future event unfolding. Imaginative play gives children opportunities to practice “life” and allows them to guide the course of each story.
Why is pretend play important?
Research has shown that pretend play helps to shape how children act and interact with their environment; it’s a vital component of their cognitive and emotional development. Imaginative play improves social, language, and problem-solving skills. Pretend play for toddlers boosts their creativity and keeps them active.
As our kids imagine the world from their perspective, they become aware that not everyone may experience it in the same way. By pretending to be someone else, they have a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes—a process that is the foundation of empathy. When playing with others, your child is learning to take turns, share, and participate in collective decisions.
Benefits of make-believe play in early childhood
Pretend or imaginative play is an important part of children’s cognitive, emotional, and social development.
- Through pretend play, kids learn about themselves and the world around them. They are able to process their experiences and make sense of things they have observed as they play.
- Pretend play offers kids an opportunity to plan, think strategically, communicate, negotiate, and consider the perspective of others.
- Role-playing can give kids a chance to practice for a future event, preparing for what to expect. Scary things like dentist visits and reading a poem in front of the class or challenges like a family illness or trauma can be processed through role-playing.
- When playing in groups, children learn to read social cues, regulate their emotions, and recognize the emotions of others.
- While children play pretend, they are able to consolidate and master other knowledge and skills; for example, counting coins while pretending to be at the supermarket reinforces math concepts.
Stages of pretend play
As children move from infancy to toddlerhood, they begin to grasp abstract concepts, thinking of things as separate from the object they represent. There are 3 main stages of pretend play:
Age 14-22 months
From about 14-22 months of age, children are in the pre-symbolic stage of development. They can pretend play with realistic props, copying what they see, for example, using a doll as a baby and pretending to feed it with a bottle.
Age 2-3 years
From the age of around 2-3 years, pretend play for toddlers progresses to playing with realistic props, verbalizing (e.g., talking to toys), planning, and following a sequence of events (such as pretending to wash, dry, and put away dishes). By age 3-3 ½, imaginative play may include play based on events your child has only seen or heard about but not experienced. They will also begin to use one item to represent another, for example, a stick may become a wand or a box a racecar.
Age 4 and above
From 4 years of age onward, pretend play becomes more socio-dramatic, with kids taking on a role and sometimes playing multiple characters such as father and teacher. Children will often set the scene before the play begins, and themes are highly imaginative. By age 5, kids are exploring the themes of “good” and “bad” and “right” and “wrong.” This may be noticeable in their imaginative play with a hero or superhero and a baddie character assigned while playing.
Pretend play ideas
The key to encouraging pretend play is providing a safe space and adequate props, then allowing your child’s imagination the chance to take the lead. A dining-room table covered with blankets or sheets can become a fort, a clubhouse, or a castle. A cardboard box can represent a racecar, a dollhouse, or a rocket.
Everyday experiences like going shopping or visiting the doctor can be acted out with a few props. Dramatic play for toddlers is easy—some old clothing items or pieces of fabric can transform into fairy wings, business clothes, or a superhero outfit.
The best imaginative play toys are those that are versatile, such as:
- Blocks, tubs, and boxes can become whatever you need them to be—from roads and castles to alien planets.
- Fabrics such as play silks can be used to dress up or decorate.
- Play tent, sheets, or blankets allow you to build a playhouse, den, or hideout.
- Costumes are great, especially for younger kids still learning the skill of abstract thought. As children get older, open-ended materials (such as the fabrics mentioned above) and props like hats and purses should be sufficient to get creative play going.
Your kids might also love to play with familiar toys or props in a less abstract way.
- Tea sets, play food, and play money provide kids with the opportunity to act out everyday experiences.
- Doctors’ kits give children the chance to act as doctors, nurses, or vets. These can also be used to prepare a child for their own medical experience.
- Kids camping sets and animal toys provide an imaginary portal to nature and the outdoors.
- Tool sets and cleaning sets let kids act out experiences they see every day.
Why is imagination important?
Imagination is the ability to create mental visual images, allowing kids a chance to freely explore situations and ideas. The ability to imagine is vital as it is the starting point for innovation and invention. For children, imagination is the tool they use to practice skills and interactions they observe in the world around them. As they imagine and role-play, kids act out what it might feel like to be someone else. This helps them develop empathy and understanding.
Imagination and imaginative play also enhance children’s creative abilities. This builds skills they will need later in life for problem-solving and visualizing characters and situations in books. When kids (and adults) encounter a problem, imagination allows them to think outside the box to find solutions.
Even storylines in books, TV series, movies, and games can be a catalyst for imagination. Children take these stories, elaborate upon them, and transform them into stories of their own. Sally Goddard Blythe, author of The Genius of natural childhood: Secrets of thriving children, says:
By listening to or by engaging with existing stories, the child is then able to create their own version, design their own “set,” imagine how the characters look to them. They can feed off existing stories and develop them, explore them, transform and manipulate them in different ways that are suited to the issues they might be struggling with in their own lives.
By providing your kids with time, a safe space, and the basic props for imaginative play, you are helping them develop into the creative thinkers, innovators, and problem-solvers of the future.