How To Encourage Your Child's Pretend Play — And Why You Want To

by Team Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 
Pretend Play
Leo Rivas/Unsplash

There are many reasons to be jealous of our little kids, but being able to retreat into their imagination has to be towards the top of that list. As we grow up, being in our own little fantasy world isn’t really acceptable, is it? But for toddlers and children, it’s encouraged. That’s because it isn’t just a good way for them to keep themselves entertained — pretend play (also known as “dramatic play”) comes with some serious benefits for kids’ cognitive, social, and emotional development.

Now that you know how important this type of play is, you’re probably dying for details about how to foster it in your child. Well, here’s what you need to know about pretend play, including some ideas for getting your kiddo started.

What is pretend play?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the definition of pretend play is “when children experiment with different social roles in a nonliteral fashion.” But that’s just a fancy way of saying that pretend play is really role play — or when kids act out different scenarios using their imagination.

What are the stages of pretend play?

Based on research by Jean Piaget, these are the stages of pretend play:

  • Single pretend transformation toward self (with toys that resemble real objects): The child hugs a doll or toy animal; the child pretends to eat toy food.
  • The object is a pretend agent (with toys that resemble real objects, the object is treated as if it acts): The child has a doll act as if it is eating toy food.
  • Single pretend transformation (with toys that have no resemblance to real objects): The child creates a bed out of building blocks; the child forms a pancake from molding clay.
  • Pretend role (with toys associated with a role that resembles real objects): The child pretends to be a cook with toy food; the child pretends to be a policeman with a toy badge and a toy car.
  • Multiple pretend role transformations (with toys that resemble real-world objects): The child takes roles, such as doctor, patient, and nurse while playing with dolls or toy animals.
  • Pretend role (without the support of toys that resemble real objects): With blocks or molding clay, the child constructs the objects needed for the pretend setting, such as a farm with blocks and farm animals from the molding clay.
  • Multiple pretend roles (with toys that resemble real-world objects): A group of children use doctor’s office toys and play roles as doctor, patient, and nurse.
  • Multiple pretend roles (without toys that resemble real objects): Children use blocks or molding clay to create the pretend setting and designate roles to enact.

What are the benefits of pretend play?

Pretend play has a major role in a child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. Some specific benefits include:

  • Teaching kids how to socially bond
  • Teaching kids how to respect others
  • Teaching kids how to communicate
  • Teaching kids how to balance personal emotions with the emotions of others
  • Increasing the bond between child and caregiver
  • Teaching kids about stress management
  • Teaching kids about resilience
  • Lowering anxiety
  • Improving academic skills
  • Decreasing disruptive behaviors
  • Increasing understanding of literature
  • Increasing emotional competence
  • Practicing and gaining negotiation and sharing skills
  • Expressing and exploring feelings
  • Exercising logical reasoning skills
  • Improving concentration and focus
  • Building kids vocabulary

How about some ideas and examples?

The glorious part about pretend play is that it relies heavily on imagination. So, no need to buy any fancy (or expensive) equipment or toys! In fact, having kids play pretending that objects are actually something else — like, pretending that a banana is a telephone — enhances the whole experience. Here are some examples of pretend play, and some ideas to help get you started:

  • Create a prop box full of different objects from around your house to spark your child’s imagination. Include things like old clothes, shoes, backpacks, and hats; old telephones, phone books, and magazines; cooking utensils, dishes, plastic food containers, table napkins, and silk flowers; stuffed animals and dolls of all sizes; T-shirts and a tie-dye kit for supervised fun creating wearable works of art; and fabric pieces, blankets, or old sheets for making costumes or a fort. Playing dress-up and building forts are the cornerstones of pretend play.
  • Give your child a large cardboard box (ideally, from a major appliance) and let them design their own bus, spaceship, house, food truck, etc.
  • Encourage kids to act out their favorite books, poems, or stories.
  • Give your child some pots and pans and let them play kitchen. As they pretend to cook, ask them what they’re making and how their pretend meals taste.

This is also a good time to remind you that not every adult is good at — or enjoys — playing. If you fall into that category, don’t worry! It definitely doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent, and your kiddo won’t hold it against you. They’ll be happy with any effort you make at all.

How do you encourage pretend play?

Pretend play can be a lot of fun for everyone in the house. There’s nothing cuter than your child pretending to be a little professional or eating pretend food. Help support your child’s creativity with these tips below.

  • Restrict the number of toys in a child’s playroom. If they don’t have a firefighter toy, they can turn their Malibu Barbie into the fire marshal. By keeping the toy count low, children fill in the gaps by using their imagination.
  • It’s important to build a child’s imagination by exposing them to new and exciting opportunities. Take them to the zoo or a carnival (socially distanced, of course). Instead of watching the same cartoon, show them a new one. The goal is to add to their imagination and keep the creative juices flowing. This will help them produce more ideas for their pretend play.
  • Play along with children, offering suggestions if they run out of ideas. Create scenarios for them to partake in or problems for them to fix. Kids can play doctor or house every day, but it’s nice to switch things up. Mama, use your imagination to build theirs. If you’re a sci-fi fan, use this to introduce them to the world of aliens. For example, describe a deserted planet, and a crashed ship. And tell your little space cadets that the goal is to get back to earth. Then let your child take the lead and watch them go!
  • During their pretend play session, say “yes,” and nod your head periodically. This may sound simple, but that word and your actions mean a lot to a child. It makes them feel validated and encouraged.
  • Always let the child be the main character or take on the lead role. (This is not your time to shine, Mama.)
  • Instead of buying more toys, pick up some theater props and costumes. This will help inspire kids to create and explore new situations.

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