Pretend play is an important aspect of children's development with multiple learning benefits.

Parents may see their children pretending as they use keys to unlock doors, put on other people’s shoes/hats, and make eating and drinking noises.

The best way to support this development is to encourage them and play along with them. For example:

  • ‘Let’s see if those keys will work in the door.’
  • ‘You look like Daddy in those boots.’
  • ‘It looks like you’re enjoying that kai.’

When young children are engaged in pretend play they are developing their:

  • imagination and creativity
  • problem-solving and critical thinking skills
  • self-expression
  • social and emotional skills
  • language and communication skills
  • ability to share, take turns and co-operate
  • confidence and curiosity
  • understanding of another person’s point of view (early empathy skills).

Children engaged in pretend play are actively experimenting with different roles in life. They are developing social and emotional intelligence through pretend play and practising how to interact with others. This includes learning how to read social cues and how to take turns.

Pretend play is an opportunity for children to:

  • learn more about themselves and their world
  • learn about other people’s worlds
  • explore things that might be frightening for them – for example, new or unfamiliar people or situations, and appointments with doctors or in hospitals
  • use dolls or soft toys to practise working through scary situations or affirming the familiar aspects of their lives
  • start the process of seeing things from another person’s point of view and consider others’ feelings (empathy)
  • mimic what happens in their home – the relationships they see and hear there
  • develop higher order thinking skills in a non-threatening and playful way
  • learn to negotiate and practise role playing. (A toddler may be assigned roles by older siblings – ‘You can be the baby’).


Promoting pretend play

What is needed to promote pretend play for toddlers?

  • time and encouragement
  • imagination – prompted by stories, especially whānau stories
  • resources, such as:
    • dolls, soft toys, puppets
    • empty boxes/shopping bags
    • blankets, cushions and material
    • dressing up clothes – hats, coats, bags and scarves
    • props for playing hospitals, shops, garages etc.

How parents can support developing imagination

Parents can support their child’s enjoyment and involvement more if they’re prepared to leave things set up for a few days, resisting the urge to tidy up, to allow their child to return to play again later.

Through technology children can have instant access to ‘pre-made’ entertainment like movies, YouTube, games and apps, which may lessen the opportunity for them to be creative and use their imagination.

Parents might need some extra encouragement and ideas to get involved in and to allow this valuable imaginative play to happen. It is well worth the effort as it enhances growth and development on many levels.

More activity ideas