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How to help develop your child’s pretend play skills

Pretend play is a complex form of play that generally begins when we turn two. It’s thinking play. Children use their imagination to be creative. You see pretend play when a child pushes a truck and makes a ‘broom’ noise, holds a cup to Teddy’s face, or talks on a toy phone.

Some children need support to develop pretend play skills. It doesn’t always come naturally. All children benefit from time spent playing with parents and other caregivers.

Pretend play helps children develop:

  • Social skills. Children learn to join another person’s game, or to take turns.
  • Emotional development. Children learn to explore emotions for example, “Teddy is sad when he falls over”.
  • Role play. Children learn to understand how another person might speak or think.
  • Language skills. Using language throughout pretend play helps children learn how to ask questions, tell a story and take turns to talk.
  • Happiness. Pretend play releases chemicals that gives children a feeling of happiness.

How pretend play skills develop

It takes time to develop pretend play skills. Your child may:

  • spontaneously perform one action with a toy (using a toy as a phone)
  • imitate a pretend play action (dig sand with a digger)
  • use toys or other items to represent something else (a cardboard box may become Teddy’s bed or a block might be a phone)
  • pretend to care for a doll or toy (dressing or reading to a doll)
  • expand play to include activities outside the home (pretend shops, for instance)
  • talk to an action figure or doll
  • add short, simple, logical sequences to play (“toy car goes on an adventure, then comes home and has a car wash”)
  • follow scripts or plots to copy a story they have read or seen in a TV show
  • explore imaginative play with other children that involves different characters (mums and dads, or hairdresser and client)
Teddy bear tea party

Discover what pretend play looks like at different ages

How to help your child develop pretend play skills

The key is to keep it simple.

  • Start with very easy activities like using sand and a bowl to mix a pretend cake.
  • Follow your child’s lead and resist the temptation to direct the play. Let your child decide what you are going to do and how you are going to do it. Playing with your child should be fun and there is no right or wrong way.
  • Take time and pause often to let your child respond, talk and come up with their own ideas.
  • Model the play. Your child will watch and learn from you.
  • Play the same pretend game over and over. Children learn from repetition.
  • When you think your child is ready, add a challenge. For example, once your child has mastered making tan-bark coffee for you, introduce pretend money to make it like a café.

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