What is pretend play, and why is it important?

October 2, 2018


A pirate, a veterinarian, a parent, a hero in a cape, a talking blue kangaroo. These are some examples of things young children pretend to be or to interact with while they play. Most adults have met a child with an active imagination, a child who loves to hear, tell, or act out stories that can range from everyday activities like playing house to more intricate ones such as blasting off into space! What does pretend play provide for young children, and how can parents support their child’s healthy imagination?

Pretend play, imaginative play, or dramatic play all refer to the child’s process of imagining or pretending that he or she is someone else. While pretend play will change and grow as children get older, child development experts agree that it is an important component of healthy growth. Children learn about relationships with others, emotional regulation, sequencing events, and logical patterns of behavior through pretend play. They can also learn about the world around them by learning how to navigate realistic circumstances and relationships.

When adults engage in children’s pretend play, they introduce a teaching element by sharing new information or new concepts. For example, a parent might expand the play of a child pretending to be a lion by talking about where lions live or by pretending a stuffed animal is an antelope for the lion to chase. It is important, however, that adults continue to allow children to remain in control of the direction and content of the pretend play. Remember, you are just a guest at the tea party!

Here are some additional things adults can do to support pretend play:

  • Tell stories with your child. Create a character that the stories are about, or make your child the star. Provide the basic framework of a story by starting with, “Once upon a time, Susie took a trip…” and allow your child to fill in the details. For younger children, ask questions about what will happen next in the story or give prompts that they can complete.
  • Embrace an imaginary friend. It is not uncommon for children to create people, animals, or fantasy creatures as a favored pretend playmate. Don’t be concerned—children with imaginary friends are often more creative and have larger vocabularies! There is no harm in setting a place at the table for the imaginary friend, or allowing the friend to pick a book to read at bedtime.
  • Provide children with items to use as props for imaginary play. This is a great way to recycle unused clothing, or to get a little extra life from a paper towel tube. Young children can find a number of creative ways to use large, empty cardboard boxes. Scholastic provides lots of ideas for creating a “prop box” for dramatic play.
  • Create connections between your real-world experiences and your child’s pretend play. Trips to the zoo, the children’s museum, the horse park, etc. can provide a lot of inspiration for dramatic play. Provide your child with related props or help start your own pretend adventure at home!

This article was written for the October 2018 edition of Parent Source.