Do you remember playing as a child, and feeling like the possibilities were endless?

Like you could become anyone, or do anything during playtime—all it took was a little imagination? If so, you were doing something called pretend play, which can be so beneficial for all children!

While all types of play help children learn and grow, pretend play has its own set of benefits. Children who use their imagination and ‘play pretend’ in safe environments are able to learn about their emotions, what interests them, and how to adapt to situations. Play is always a great way to take advantage of baby’s neuroplasticity, and pretending takes this even further, helping children use their social-emotional and executive function skills.

What is pretend play?Little girl playing dress up with her pet is a great example of pretend play

Pretend play is sometimes called dramatic play, make believe, or imaginative play. It’s a time when you let your little one use their imagination to make up what’s going on. Children will usually start doing pretend play when they are a toddler, between the ages of 2 and 3. It’s around this age that executive function skills, like working memory and problem solving, become stronger. These skills help to make pretend play possible. Pretend play is something children will continue to do throughout the first part of childhood!

What does pretend play look like?

There are so many ways your child can use their imagination in play, so there’s no rules on what it looks like! Pretend play will also change as your child gets older. They will be able to think of more complex situations at an older age. For example, a 2 year old may engage in this kind of play with a stuffed animal, while a 6 year old may put on a play with their animals, or play in a group of children with various stuffed animals.

6 stages of play according to baby's age

Some common pretend play situations include:

What are the benefits of pretend play?

This type of play is so fun for kids—and there’s so many benefits! Your child’s brain is constantly learning and developing at this age, so it’s a great time to take advantage of their neuroplasticity. Pretend play can help with:

  • Creativity: During pretend play, children are constantly inventing stories and making up new situations. This exercises their creativity, and allows them to think in different ways!
  • Social-emotional skills: In pretend play, children may be playing a character, or playing with others (real or imaginative). This gives them the chance to think about emotions that others may be having, which helps with empathy and problem-solving. If they’re playing with another child, they also practice skills like taking turns and sharing.
  • Communication: While playing pretend, children are always communicating in some way. They may be talking to their dolls, telling a story, or pretending to be someone else. All of these are great way to use and develop their communication skills!
  • Self-regulation: When children play make believe, they often experience many emotions. By experiencing these feelings, they also learn how to control them. Additionally, if they are doing pretend play with other children, they learn how to control their emotions in a group.
  • Problem solving: Problem solving is an important executive function skill that helps children with everything from school to relationships. In pretend play, children may encounter real or imagined problems—either way, they need to use their skills to find a solution. Additionally, by challenging themselves with a new situation and figuring it out, children build their confidence.

How can you encourage pretend play?

There’s no wrong or right way to do it, and often children will use their imagination and make believe in a variety of situations! Some ways to encourage this behavior include:Young boy pretend playing in the sand

  • Let your child choose: Have them chose how they want to play! That’s the best way to support their creativity and confidence.
  • Telling stories: Try telling your children stories so they will begin to think of their own. This can come from stories you know, books you read them, or just asking them more about something they have just read or watched.
  • Dressing up: If you’ve dressed up for Halloween or a party of some sort, you know that when you’re in costume you just start to feel like someone else! Costumes (even simple ones, like an old hat or sweater) can help with make believe.
  • Ask questions: When children are playing with a toy, ask them questions to get them thinking creatively. If they are playing with a car, you can ask them where the car is going. If they’re playing with a doll, you can ask them what the doll is doing.
  • Using open-ended toys: Children can engage in pretend play with a variety of toys. Open-ended toys are typically the best—these are toys like dolls and balls that don’t have a set of rules with them. Instead, children can get creative and figure out how they want to play with these toys.
  • Engaging in group play: When children play with others, their creativity multiplies! Whether it’s on the playground or at a birthday party, playing in a group can be a great opportunity for pretend play.

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