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The Best Pretend Play Toys To Engage the Imagination, According to a Teacher

They’ll play for hours — really.

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Parenting is full of difficult moments we talk about here at Scary Mommy at length and without shame. Like how getting pregnant is complicated, mom rage is real, and oh, by the way, we’re all losing our hair. But it’s also full of rich, magical moments you want to bottle up forever. One of those magical moments is without a doubt the awakening of the imagination, and the best pretend play toys help your kids get there. When your kiddo puts an empty spoon or cup to their mouth and you nudge your partner, “Look! She’s pretending!”

Pretend play toys are useful vehicles for that imagination to grow and thrive because they allow for open-ended play. Things like dress-up clothes or ever-popular play food sets really set the stage for kids to build their own narratives.

To find out just how this magical phenomenon takes place — and why it’s so important — we tapped early childhood special expert, Emily Ndungu.

The Expert

Emily Ndungu is an early childhood special education (ECSE) teacher in Leander, Texas. She has a bachelor’s degree in early childhood special education from Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has taught in a variety of school settings, both in the United States and in Kenya. She loves working with children and being a mommy to her 1-year-old son.

What Age Is Appropriate For Pretend Play?

According to Ndungu, your child could exhibit signs of readiness for pretend play as early as 12 months old. “You might see your child hold a block to their ear like a phone or use the remote like a brush. They are constantly watching you and trying to mimic your actions,” says Ndungu. However, if you’re waiting for your kids to engage in imaginative play together, you’re a few years away. “Cooperative play, interacting with peers, doesn’t emerge until around age 3 or 4.”

How Do I Get My Toddler To Pretend Play?

The answer is simple: “The best way to encourage pretend play is to play with them!” shares Ndungu. “It can feel a little funny to get on their level and pretend to play kitties or doctor, but it has so many benefits for your child. Sometimes they need modeling and encouragement from their grown-up to foster that imagination.” Another way to encourage play is to observe your child’s interests. “If they love dinosaurs, bury their toy dinosaurs in the sandbox and give them a toothbrush to explore. If they loved a trip to the doctor’s office, give them some Band-Aids, Q-tips, and a thermometer to play doctor.” Once you’re aware of your child’s interests, Ndungu suggests providing toys and supplies from around the home to help them explore through play.

Why Is Pretend Play So Important?

“Pretend play is vital for their development,” reveals Ndungu. “Not only does it cultivate creativity and imagination, but it also builds socioemotional and language skills.” The benefits of pretending are right there, even if you can’t see them on the surface. “While playing, your child is learning turn-taking, problem-solving, and listening to others [...]. Language skills are formed and practiced while pretending.” Pull out a few pretend toys or empty egg cartons and witness the phenomenon. “Just think,” says Ndungu, “playing grocery store practices social interaction, food vocabulary, and counting.”

Ready to get playing? From baking toys that encourage pretend to play in the kitchen to vet and firefighter sets for exploring different occupations, the toys below promise to help you and your little one lose yourself in the immersive world of pretend play. Let their imagination — and yours — run wild.

01

Editor’s Choice: A Much-Adored Wooden Ice Cream Set

Set up shop with this adorable wooden ice cream playset that’s almost as good as the real thing. It comes complete with everything your kiddo needs to run a sweet small business, including a menu and pretend dollar bills. Each scoop and topping stacks on with a satisfying fit that makes it fun for kids (and honestly, parents) to create new variations of the yummy treats. And the cherry on top? Expect long legs from this toy. As your kiddo ages, they’ll unlock new levels of imaginative play from the simple act of building a cone to more advanced skills like counting money. This is a clear standout favorite with a nearly unheard-of 4.9-star rating on Amazon after 13,000 reviews.

Editor’s Review: “This was a gift that my daughter received when she turned 3, and now five years and two siblings later, it remains one of the most played-with toys in our house. It kickstarts all kinds of open-ended pretend play, and the kids always delight asking me what topping I want. All of the pieces have held up incredibly well, year after year. Truly worth every penny.”

Recommended Age: 3 years old & up

02

A Wooden Toy Food Set (& My Personal Favorite)

This toy food set is the perfect introduction to learning about food groups. With a collection of 21 food pieces from the five food groups, kids can learn about the different types of foods that make a meal. The colorful pieces are also conducive to sorting, a favorite toddler pastime, with the four included crates. With a near-perfect 4.8-star rating and 32,000 reviews, hundreds of shoppers note the high quality and durability of these wooden toys.

Writer’s Review: “My oldest just turned 5 and this humble set of wooden foods has been in play for nearly as long. What started off as a parenting choice — an aesthetically pleasing set to stock his play kitchen — has now made an appearance in several games my kiddos play, including Restaurant and Grocery Store. They love to take over the living room and stock the couch with wooden food plus whatever else they find hanging out in the recycling bin. Then out come the toddler-size play cars and a pretend cash register. It’s a mess but I must say, business — and imaginations — are booming.”

Recommended Age: 2 years old & up

03

The Wallet Pretend Toy Set My Kids Absolutely Love

This simple wallet set houses everything a child needs for running those important errands, and gives them what they really want: stuff that looks like just yours. The smooth wooden phone and watch feature a range of colorful details while the plastic credit cards and pop-out key are perfect for playing along while you do real-world things. Plus, it all fits easily into the Velcro-close pouch for easy toting and cleanup.

Writer’s Review: “This is another set of toys that just keeps on giving in our home. Sometimes used as a set but often on their own, each piece in this on-the-go wallet has earned its time as The Toy among my two kids. A particular favorite is the key fob. The key locks into place and pops out with a satisfying push of the button. It comes in clutch when a kid wants their own key set while momma’s keys are in the ignition, as well when the pretend vehicles go out for “errands.” And while a wooden phone doesn’t beep or buzz, my kids have no problem at all imagining a ringtone. No complaints, here.”

Recommended Age: 3 years old & up

04

A Pretend Cash Register With A Functional Calculator

Every establishment needs a working cash register — even a pretend one. Kids can set up shop with this solar-powered calculator and cash register combo. The drawer pops out to the sound of a “cha-ching” that your kids will absolutely love while the life-size bills and coins are the perfect way to introduce money counting skills.

Helpful Review: “My son has had this for over a year and plays with it every week. All his play money of coins and notes is stored in this register. He has drawn pretend money and stored in this too.He plays pretend shopkeeper and pretend customer with people. The calculator is fun too, few days back he was pressing random buttons and getting excited at the fun numbers/characters that were showing up on the calculator screen.”

Recommended Age: 3 years old & up

05

An Echo Microphone So They Can Take Center Stage

All the world’s a stage and this echo microphone is just the beginning. The battery-free toy has a fun echo effect so little ones can hear their voices amplified. Pull this toy out to stimulate speech and encourage musical development and creative expression. And bonus: Like the review below, this one might be a little bit nostalgic for you.

Helpful Review: “I grew up with a version of this toy that I think I must have gotten in a McDonald’s Happy Meal at one point. I remember my siblings and I using it for all sorts of imaginative play. I was excited to see the new generation of this toy by Hape. It’s low-tech, kid-powered fun. Just like the good old days. Has survived many drops so far by my toddler.”

Recommended Age: 12 months old & up

06

A Vet Kit For Caring For Ailing Stuffed Animals

Doc McStuffins, who? Give your kiddo all the tools they need to keep those loveys happy and healthy. This vet play set includes a stethoscope, thermometer, syringe, ear scope, tweezers, clamp, cast, bandages, treatments, ointments, and a reusable double-sided checklist. Plus, it even comes with a cute little puppy and kitty ready for examination.

Helpful Review: “This was a gift for my 3-year-old daughter and she is absolutely obsessed with it! All of her stuffed animals (and 2 love dogs) are completely healthy. She constantly gives them check-ups, listens to their hearts, gives them medicine, and kisses them all better. This set is perfect! Definitely recommend it!”

Recommended Age: 3 years old & up

07

A Toddler Kitchen Set With Real Stainless Steel Pots

The kitchen is the so-called “heart of the home,” so it’s no wonder a pretend kitchen set like this one is a must-have item. Whether they have a play kitchen or not, this 23-piece set with cooking utensils will likely still get plenty of play time as they mimic your cooking. The mini stainless steel cookware, including pots, pans, and a colander, is downright adorable, and so are the cutting board and vegetables for “real” chopping. Plus, this set includes a cute apron, chef’s hat, and matching potholder so they can look the part.

Helpful Review: “Got this for my daughter's birthday and she absolutely loves it. Definitely a lot sturdier than the previous set I got her which she had some broken in the first couple of days. Would definitely recommend if someone wants something durable that's going to last for a while.”

Recommended Age: 3 years old & up

08

A Set Of Dress-Up Clothes With Cute Usable Accessories

These machine-washable costumes are durable and roomy enough to last a few years. Little explorers can choose from a scientist set, an explorer kit, and a gardening set for fun dress-up. Each costume comes with matching accessories and toys for hours of imaginative play — some of the accessory toys function just like the real thing, like the magnifying glass, garden tools, and goggles.

Helpful Review: “I was pleasantly surprised at the quality and detail of this dress up clothes set. The labcoat is thick and well made, the explorer outfit authentic looking and gardener outfit with its useable tools all excellent as well. The accessories: like magnifying glass, droppers and name badge are all good quality and add that little bit more for a great experience for the 3 and older crowd.”

Recommended Age: 3 years old & up

09

A Pop-Up Tent & Camping Kit For Backyard Adventures

Everything you need for playing camp is right here in this kids’ camping set, including a two-person pop-up tent. With tools, binoculars, battery-operated lantern, and a camping stove with pretend food, your kiddo can get lost in the great outdoors without even leaving the house. Seriously, this play kit even comes with bugs and a net to catch them. Choose from sets in blue or green.

Helpful Review: “I was absolutely amazed at the quality, variety, and realness of this set! My son loves to hunt, fish, explore, camp, play in the dirt… all the things outdoors! I was a bit nervous he would be disappointed that this was all pretend and not the real deal, but he has played with this stuff for hours… days! We keep it all in the bag that came with the set and on the weekends, he is so excited to go outside on “an adventure” with these toys! What a great purchase for my 7 year old! :)”

Recommended Age: 3 years old & up

10

A Beloved Cleaning Set With Over 40,000 Reviews

Who knew a mop for toddlers could garner so much love? This highly popular pretend play set maintains an impressive overall 4.8-star rating with over 40,000 reviews. With five different cleaning pieces — a duster, mop, broom, brush, and dustpan that clips onto the broomstick — plus a stand to keep them, kiddos can take on different roles and engage their motor skills while also building confidence. You might even get a clean-ish floor out of it.

Helpful Review: “My son has always loved helping me with chores so I finally decided to buy him this set and he LOVES it. He plays with it everyday and it just teaches him good habits at a really young age!”

Recommended Age: 3 years old & up

11

A Surprisingly Realistic Washing Machine For Playing House

Does your little one love helping with the laundry? It’s one of those mundane-to-us things that somehow takes on a magical appeal (The spinning! The water!) for a child. The raving reviews for this toy washing machine come from parents and kids alike, and it works with or without water. It’s smaller than it looks, but we’d say that’s a good thing. Perfect for small spaces and small hands, it’s also just the size for washing doll clothes. The battery-operated machine features four washing programs and sounds, and it comes with two detergent packs.

Helpful Review: “We absolutely love this toy! my son is thrilled with it. totally worth its money. i could also use for my personal use lets say to wash my makeup sponge. we haven’t tried the water yet because i don’t want to show him that this option is also available as i will not be able to sit every time with him while he plays to avoid any mess.totally recommended”

Recommended Age: 3 years old & up

12

A Wooden Coffee Set For Pretend Café Play

If the end goal is to raise a child who brings you a coffee in bed, this coffee maker toy is how it starts. Melissa & Doug does it again with a set that includes two mugs, spoons, coffee pods, sugar, creamer, an ice cube, and a menu in addition to the coffee maker. Kiddos can slide the pod into the coffee maker and turn the dial for hours of imaginative play — they’ll love mimicking your morning ritual.

Helpful Review: “My 18 month old loves to help with me out my K-cups into our Keurig. So I got him this. He loves it! Melissa and Doug toys are by far my favorite toys for little ones. Sturdy and durable. They can take a beating and still work. The colors and buttons keep his attention and the pods and ice cubes and all the accessories keep him busy.”

Recommended Age: 3 years old & up

13

A Pretend School Set For Little Learners & Future Teachers

You know it’s coming. The day when your kids decide to play “school” and they raid your desk for all the markers, paper, and pens they can find. Save your sanity and come prepared with this play school set that has everything they need to feel like a big kid. There’s a tabletop whiteboard with dry-erase markers, a school bell, flashcards, magnetic numbers, and even a pair of glasses for dress-up play.

Helpful Review: “My daughter loved this as a Christmas present, she is 6 years old. She loves to play pretend teacher and school and this really made her feel like she was the teacher. It came with so much items compared to other companies and was great for the price.”

Recommended Age: 3 years old & up

14

A Life-Like Tool Set Complete With a Pretend Workbench

The realistic tools in this play set are built for builders-to-be. The drill itself is outstanding with replaceable drill bits and a reverse button for a real-life spin. Kiddos can get to work for hours with all the props and accessories. And when they’re finished? Everything has a place here on the workbench.

Helpful Review: “My son is always wanting to help with housework, he loves tools and cleaning supplies. I bought him this because I would always take my drill and act like he was fixing things every time I brought it out. Now he walks around the house all day "fixing" the walls and literally anything. It is the cutest and he is so entertained by it even weeks later. This is probably the only toy I have bought for my kids that has been played with longer than a week. Total win!”

Recommended Age: 3 years old & up

15

A Firefighter Set Complete With Costumes & A Pop-Up Truck

There comes an age in nearly every child’s life where they are suddenly obsessed with firetrucks. And who can blame them — the shiny red paint, the sirens, the fact that there may or may not be a dog on board — the trucks demand attention. And you’ll be the one who captures it with this pop-up firefighter set complete with a pop-up truck, firefighter costume, and life-like walkie-talkie.

Helpful Review: “My 3 year old son loves playing fireman in this tent. It has openings in the bottom and you can walk around with it to pretend you are driving. We leave it open in his room and haven't tried folding it back up yet, which seems like it might be challenging. Great product for the price.”

Recommended Age: 1 year old & up

Experts:

Emily Ndungu, early childhood special education (ECSE) teacher in Leander, Texas.