The Magic of Pretend Play


Imagination is what distinguishes us a species from the rest of life on Earth.  Being able to predict outcomes and cooperate with many people at a time is one of our most valuable qualities.  Psychologists may attribute this quality to developing what’s known as a Theory of Mind.  We encourage you to learn about this theory.  Jargon aside, pretend play is when children begin to develop and demonstrate this critical, species defining trait.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” –Albert Einstein

There is a school of thought that pretend play and language development are linked as both use symbols to represent things that aren’t physically present or may not exist at all.  In pretend play, a block can be a car, and in language one’s words are symbolizing thoughts.  Pretend play has also been cited as helping with attention levels, creative problem solving, math… the list goes on and on.  Suffice it to say, pretend play is absolutely essential for the healthy growth of a young mind and parents should encourage their children to do so.

The benefits that pretend play help with are well researched. We won’t bore you with citations and innumerable academic discoveries, however.  There is plenty of information across the web for your learning pleasure.  This short piece we will try to illustrate some of what to expect and how parents might facilitate pretend play more effectively in a condensed format.

Stages of Pretend Play

The Hanen Centre has adapted a portion of the 2002 book by Weitzman and Greenberg entitled, Learning Language and Loving It.   This resource outlines the typical stages of pretend play starting from one year through five years of age.

Self-pretend – (12-18 months)  Kids will pretend with one toy at a time on themselves, generally pretending that they are using the actual item in hand.  For example, they will use a toy or real spoon to pretend to eat.

Simple pretend – (18-24 months) This will be similar to self-pretend except children will tend to incorporate other agents in their play.  Instead of feeding themselves, they may feed a doll while still using very realistic toys.

Series of familiar actions – (24-30 months)  As language start to click and kids start to string words together, they will also string pretend play actions together.  A child may pretend to walk through all the steps of cooking and eating a meal.  They may start to use less realistic objects at this point and rely on their imagination a bit more.

Series of less familiar actions – (30-36 months) Children begin to pretend within themes that aren’t familiar to them.  They can pretend to drive cars, execute jobs that they have only observed, etc.  They also gain the ability to use objects that don’t represent the object in play at all.  They can substitute nearly anything to represent what they want.

Role play with other children – (3-5 years) Kids can now explore themes that don’t really exist.  They can role-play as fairies, space marines, dinosaurs, etc.  They begin to use very high level pretend play including using mime and unrealistic objects.  Kids starts to use their verbal skills to explain their roles and set up the pretend play scenario.

Encouraging Pretend Play: What you can do

In addition to providing some nice bullet points from the book regarding playtime milestones, the people at Hanen have added some of their own tips on how to engage with your kids during pretend time and we agree wholeheartedly.  We’ll go over some of their best tips on how to stimulate pretend play with your children in this next section.

  • Observe and let your child initiate  – Don’t overstimulate your kid with too many pretend toys at once, but provide a few options and see what she starts to play with.  Then you can take the cue and engage in that playtype further.  Imitate her play to reinforce the behavior and make pretend more fun for the child.
  • Don’t be afraid to initiate yourself – If your child doesn’t seem to want to engage in pretend play on her own, don’t be afraid to try and initiate the pretend play yourself.  If your child is of age and just not quite getting there, take a fake sip of water out of a toy cup.  Maybe make some fire truck noises with a toy or pretend a doll is a real baby and cradle it.  Remember to take turns though and don’t take over pretend play.
  • Evolving pretend play – Once your child has the fundamentals of pretend play down, try to assist in linking new actions together.  If your child is a big fan of fire trucks, introduce a new driver and see if they respond well.  Also, remember to encourage incorporation of new experiences they may have had recently.  Reference a some animals they may have seen recently outdoors.  Hanen uses a trip to the zoo as an example.  Help them recall any new characters they may have been exposed to recently and try to incorporate them into pretend play.
  • Great Toys! – Using the right toys is also instrumental in stimulating pretend play.  Puppets, playdough, dolls.  Amorphous toys that can be anything or toys that are conducive to animation are obvious winners here.  Sticker sets can be good too and can often times include all of the above examples.

Well, there you have it.  Pretend play in a nutshell.  It’s an exciting time witnessing a child coming out of infancy and into full fledged childhood and pretend time is one of the main attractions here.  Watching them grow and learn about new foods, vehicles, occupations, animals… the stuff that makes our world go is essentially what’s burgeoning here.  The beginnings of language to boot makes the ages from 1-5 some of the most fun and cherishable moments for parents to enjoy.

Thanks to the Hanen Centre for being such a great resource and we hope that our little synopsis here provided you with some good reference material and preparation ideas for you and your little one’s playtime.  Please let us know any of your favorite pretend play activities and tips in the comments.  Happy playing!

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