What Is Pretend Play?

As toddlers grow and mature, a little magic enters their minds: pretend play. This form of play is actually an essential part of your child’s overall development and has many benefits, including boosting language, social, emotional, creative, and problem-solving skills. Keep reading to learn more about what exactly pretend play looks like for toddlers, the benefits, and how to encourage your little one’s magical world.

Pretend Play: What Is It and Why Do Kids Do It?

Have you ever witnessed your little explorer lost in a world of imagination? Perhaps they are dressed up and zooming around like a fairy or superhero; having a tea party with their teddy bears; or digging for gold in the backyard. All of these examples and more are pretend play! There isn't a narrow, single definition of pretend play, which goes by other names as well. Sometimes pretend play is called symbolic play, referring to when children use language, gestures, and props to create unreal and imaginary scenarios. Kids' pretend play may also be known as

  • imaginative play

  • creative play

  • make-believe play

  • fantasy play.

No matter what name is used, pretend play helps your little one grasp the world around them and boosts their physical and cognitive development. You might even see your child mimicking a grown-up or acting out household chores, as pretend play also helps young children learn about social interaction and behavior. Of course, pretend play for toddlers is both lots of fun and an important part of their development.

When Do Kids Start Pretend Play?

Pretend play usually begins when your child is between 2 and 3 years old. When your toddler reaches the age of pretend play, they become more aware of the function of objects as toys. You may see them chattering into a toy phone, making siren sounds when pushing along a toy fire truck, or feeding their baby doll. Then, as your toddler transitions to a preschooler, their pretend play becomes more creative, elaborate, and physical—and there’s no limit to their imagination! Everyday objects become tools for your child’s imaginary world. For example, pretend play can prompt your toddler to dress up in a blanket and imagine it as a cape or model clay to make a delicious feast (and invite you to enjoy it).

In Summary

Pretend play is also known as “symbolic play,” in which children use language, gestures, props, dress up, toys, etc., to create imaginary scenarios. Between 2 and 3 years of age, your toddler will likely begin to engage in pretend play as they become more aware of the function of objects. Pretend play in preschoolers becomes more elaborate and creative.


The Benefits of Pretend Play

It can be fascinating to watch your toddler’s pretend play and to see how much they enjoy it. As your budding adventurer creates a magical world full of fantastical ideas, they’re learning and developing many important skills. Here are the some of the benefits of pretend play in your child’s development:

  • Builds language. When your child role plays or imitates a grown-up, they’ll use words and phrases that they’ve overheard from people around them. Your little one may also begin reenacting or making up their own stories. This helps them understand the power of language, reach language milestones, and develop their skills.

  • Fosters social and emotional skills. Through role-play with friends, your child can learn to cooperate with others and experiment with social roles. For example, pretend play with a toy doll or teddy bear can teach your little one how to take care for something and develop empathy. They may also deal with their own emotions, guilt, and conflicts through role-playing.

  • Nurtures creativity. When your little one is playing make-believe or dressing up, they are enriching their imagination and creative skills. Perhaps they transform into a doctor or assign roles when playing house.

  • Encourages problem-solving. Pretend play helps your child learn and develop their thinking skills while solving problems in creative ways. For example, your child may use and develop these skills when building a fort from blankets while preventing it from falling down.

To learn more about the fun of fort building, watch the video below:

5 Tips to Encourage Pretend Play

Your support and enthusiasm will set the stage for your toddler’s pretend play and all types of development and creative activity. Here are some ways to encourage pretend play for your toddler and preschooler:

1. Feed the Fantasy

When your child is in their own little land of make-believe, try not to bring them back down to Earth. Feed into their fantasy by asking them questions about their pretend play. If your child is pretending to be a superhero, ask them what superpowers they have or who they have saved today. Who knows—you may even be invited to take on a superhero or nemesis role yourself and join in on the fun! Not only will this form of pretend play be fun for your child, but asking questions can also encourage the development of language skills.

2. Offer Props and Costumes

What better way to encourage kids’ pretend play than providing them with the tools to create their own imaginary world? Costumes, toys, and props for pretend play don’t have to cost much either; for example, you can give your little one some of your old clothes (hats, scarves, dresses, etc.) for some fun, inexpensive dress-up pretend play. You could also provide your little explorer with a large cardboard box and other simple objects. You might be surprised at what can spark their imagination. Will they sail the seas in their pirate ship box, transform it into a majestic castle, or fly to the moon in their new rocket ship? Pretend play ideas for toddlers have no limits!

3. Encourage Building and Creating

Supply your child with building blocks, construction sets, or art and craft materials and watch them create! Children love to build and use their imaginations to create towers, buildings, magical lands, vehicles, animals, and many other things. You might want to suggest some fun art and craft ideas, such as making masks or paper finger puppets, to provide them with hours of creative fun. Not only does this type of pretend play spark their creativity and imagination, but it also develops their problem-solving skills and hand-eye coordination. You could encourage pretend play by asking them to build the tallest tower or create a dream home for their doll.

4. Read to Your Child

Reading to children from a young age can also encourage pretend play and imagination. Stories can open up new worlds and characters for your little one, as well as promote language skills, and there are so many wonderful children’s books to choose from. During reading, you could ask your child questions, such as “What do you think will happen next?” or “What would you do if you were that character?” Some of the best pretend play ideas come straight out of the pages of story books. You can encourage your child to act out their favourite part of the story or favourite character, or you may even see them re-enacting the story during pretend play with friends.

5. Limit Screen Time

In a world dominated by screens and devices, real-life social interactions and pretend play are vital for your child’s development. It’s important to pay attention to how much screen time your little one has each day, and to understand the effects of too much screen time on their development. Experts suggest limiting screen time (TV, tablets, smartphones, laptops) to a maximum of one hour per day for children aged 2 to 5. When you do have screen time, consider enjoying it together rather than alone. You could watch age-appropriate educational shows or snuggle up together with a fun movie and snacks.

In Summary

To encourage pretend play for toddlers and nurture their imagination, you can provide them with tools, such as costumes, cardboard boxes, toys, dress-up clothes, kitchen sets, craft items, modeling clay, building blocks/construction sets, dolls, and books. You can even get involved with the pretend play yourself by acting out roles with your child or partaking in storytelling. Try to limit screen time to one hour per day max.



Examples of pretend play include:

  • Role-play and dress-up
  • Feeding a doll
  • Tea party with toys or teddy bears
  • Mimicking household chores
  • Turning a simple object into something creative (e.g., a cardboard box becomes a rocket ship). 

Our article offers several ideas to encourage your little one’s pretend play within these themes.

The Bottom Line

Make the most of these magical years as your child launches into pretend play. As they explore the world around them, pretend play will be an important part of their overall development, building language, social, emotional, problem-solving, and creative skills while providing hours of fun. To encourage this development, look on in awe and wonder as they put on a show for you; encourage and support their fantastical ideas; and provide them with the tools they need to nurture their imagination. To keep the fun going, you can use Pampers Cruisers 360°, so that your toddler can play comfortably all day. Don’t forget to reward yourself for all those diaper changes on our Pampers Club App!

How We Wrote This Article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.