What is pretend play? In pretend play, children use their imagination to take on different roles in real or made-up situations. Since this often involves mentally transforming objects, landscapes, or even their own bodies into something new pretend play is sometimes referred to as symbolic play. Examples of include acting out realistic activities like cooking a meal or going to school or pretending to be a teacher, doctor, or engineer. It also includes and acting out more fantastical roles, like being a knight who slays a dragon or a unicorn in a magical herd. Children can pretend play in groups or on their own.

Child giving a pretend shot to her momStudies have consistently show that pretend play is very beneficial to young children. Cooperative pretend play helps children learn problem solving, conflict resolution, and negotiation skills, and helps them practice expressing their wants and needs. Both cooperative and solo pretend play encourages abstract thought, which sets a strong foundation for understanding complex concepts in formal environments.

Research also suggests that playing with objects aids brain development by encouraging the formation and connection of brain cells associated with cognition.

Additionally, children often use pretend play to process experiences and emotions. Observing how they pretend play can be a useful tool for understanding the needs of young learners. Taking note of the types of topics and situations that your child engages with when playing, can provide insights into what they are learning and how they are feeling.

Ways to incorporate pretend play into your child’s life:

  • Give your child toys that encourage pretend play. Have toys available that encourage pretend play such as dress up clothes, dolls, and blocks. You don’t need to buy a bunch of toys – you can use grown up clothes, pots and pans, and other child-safe household items, like pillows.
  • Provide your child opportunities to play in groups. Research shows that when children engage in pretend play together, they develop key social skills that are essential for school readiness. You can facilitate group play by going to play groups, scheduling playdates, or sending your child to a high quality early childhood care provider.
  • Play with your child. Pretend play with your child doesn’t have to be elaborate, and it can be worked into everyday scenarios. For example, on the way to the grocery store, pretend your car or the bus you’re taking is a submarine. What do you see out the window? At the store, pretend you are tigers hunting for food. What will you find next? Introducing small moments of imaginative play is great for your child’s brain development and has been scientifically proven to help you bond with your child.
  • Let your child play alone. Encourage your child to play alone from a young age, keeping in mind that their desire and ability to do so will increase as they get older. Research has shown that solo play has a number of cognitive and emotional benefits for children, fostering creativity, perseverance, self-reliance, and self-knowledge.