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Pretend Play for Toddlers: All You Need to Know


A toddler is a child who is approximately 2 to 3 years old. The toddler years are a time of great cognitive, emotional and social development. In essence, these are years when children develop their social lives through playing. Typically, one of the most interesting aspects of toddlerhood playing activities is ‘pretend play.’ This could be anything from “sailing on a cardboard ship” or pretending to cook a meal. 

Pretend play is beneficial to children’s imagination as well as the development of their social skills, language, thinking, and emotional abilities. Toys such as pretend food, action figures, cars, and dress-up costumes can all help to encourage pretend play. However, they are not required; in fact, employing simple things with no stated purpose encourages children to think more creatively. For instance, a pail of leaves can be a soup pot, a laundry basket can be an aeroplane, and a stack of pillows can be a mountain.

Table of Contents

What is Pretend Play?

Toddler and toys. Pretend play
A toddler playing with toys

Pretend play also known as imaginative play, is a type of play that allows toddlers to try numerous roles. Pretend play begins anytime from 11 months to 18 months and starts to change into other types of play any time from 10 to 12 years. It becomes very noticeable when your toddler turns 4 years old because at age 4 children can play out. When children engage in pretend play, they play as if something or someone is real. 

They are creating a situation where there is more going on than what is literally happening. For example, a child might be placing a cup in a doll’s mouth and then placing the doll on a bed. To the child, the doll is alive and sleeping.

Types of Pretend Play for Toddlers

Influential sociologist Mildred Parten was an early advocate for the benefits of pretend play. Her work described six essential types of play that kids take part in, depending on their age, mood, and social setting, and explained the ways that children learn and interact with each other during play. 

The following describes the stages when each play emerges. 

Unoccupied Play

Unoccupied play primarily occurs in toddlers, from birth to three months. This is the first stage of play, and to the untrained eye, likely doesn’t look like play at all. Parents don’t need to do anything special to foster this play, babies do it instinctively. However, it’s essential to allow toddlers to have time to explore unhindered, even if it’s just wiggling their hands and feet in the air.

Solitary (Independent) Play

Solitary play teaches toddlers how to keep themselves entertained, eventually setting the path to being self-sufficient. It is most common in toddlers between two to three years. At that age, toddlers are still pretty self-focused and lack good communication.

Onlooker Play

Onlooker play is when a toddler simply observes other toddlers playing and does not partake in the action. Your toddler may watch and imitate what you or other adults are doing as well. Onlooker play is typical for children between two and three years old and is especially common for younger children who are working on their developing vocabulary.

Parallel Play

When you put two children in a room, they are most likely to be seen playing side by side in their own little worlds. It doesn’t mean that they don’t like one another, they are just engaging in parallel play. This type of play begins around age two and differs from other kinds of play. In this category, no one disturbs the other.

Benefits of Pretend Play for Toddlers

Pretend play has an endless list of benefits for toddlers. Some of the benefits are language skills, thinking skills, social and emotional skills, nurturing their imagination, fostering your toddler’s creativity, and so on. Especially in toddlerhood and beyond, imaginative play is crucial for helping kids cultivate important life skills. 

Language Skills

Toddlers say words you least expect from them during pretend play. You will probably hear some words and phrases you never assumed they knew. In fact, you will often hear your own words reflected in the play of your children. Toddlers can do a perfect imitation of their parents. Therefore, pretend play helps your toddler understand the power of language. 

In addition, by engaging in pretend play with others, he learns that words give him the chance to organize play and communicate better. This process helps your child to make the connection between the spoken and written language, which is a skill that will gradually improve his linguistic capability.

Thinking Skills

Pretend play provides your child with different types of problems to solve. For example, the problem might be two children wanting to play the same role or searching for the right material to make a roof for the playhouse. This triggers your toddler’s cognitive thinking skills that he will use in every aspect of his life.

 It also helps your toddlers when they participate in roughhousing(a fight that is not serious, more like a play). Researchers in early brain development believe that this sort of play helps develop the part of the brain (the frontal lobe) that regulates behavior. 

Social and Emotional Skills

Pretend play enhances your toddler’s social and emotional skills. When your toddler engages in pretend play, he is actively experimenting with the social and emotional roles of life. Typically, through cooperative play, he learns how to take turns, share responsibility, feel for others and creatively solve problems. 

Furthermore, when your toddler pretends to be a different character, he has the experience of “walking in someone else’s shoes,” which helps teach the important moral development skill of empathy. It helps them to see the world from their point of view. 

Also, through maturation and cooperative play, your toddler will begin to understand the feelings of others. His self-esteem is built when he discovers he can be anything just by pretending.

Promote Self-control 

Pretend play helps to promote self-control skills in toddlers, hence, making them have control over their emotions. When pretending, toddlers have to come together to agree on imaginary scenarios and decide who will play what role. However, this can sometimes generate frustrating feelings, but they have to figure out how to cope, especially when they are monitored. 

Gives a Sense of Independence

Children who engage in pretend play learn to live in their worlds for some periods as a form of entertainment and busyness. This lets them spend time with themselves and learn more about their own unique identities, likes and dislikes, and much more.

Builds relationship

Toddlers create a new world that brings them closer together and helps them learn about each other. When parents get involved especially, it encourages give-and-take interactions that help to strengthen bonds. Importantly, toddlers who grow together, often get fond of themselves.

Nurturing the imagination

Pretend play helps to nurture the mind and enhance the imaginative ability of your toddlers. In a bid to nurture the imagination of your toddler, you can consider creating a prop box or corner filled with objects to spark their world of fantasies. Also, you might include old clothes, shoes, backpacks, hats, old telephones, phone books, magazines, cooking utensils, dishes, plastic food containers, table napkins, silk flowers and so on.

How to Encourage Pretend Play for Toddlers

You can help your toddlers/toddler flex their imaginative muscles shortly after delivery. Moreover, toddlers might not yet have the capacity to imagine themselves as a lawyer or doctor but they can still participate in social play and practice taking on different roles. 

Therefore, the following are some of the ways you can encourage pretend play for toddlers;

  • Have rollicking conversations with your toddler and invite her to explore different objects in her surroundings. As she reaches her first birthday, shift the focus to modelling the actions and behaviors you want her to learn like introducing herself to new people and sharing toys. 
  • Have a chat. Imitate the sounds that your baby makes, or talk with her and give her a chance to speak. She might respond by squealing, cooing, moving her arms or legs, and, smiling.
  • Encourage exploration. Give your toddler appropriate objects in various sizes, colors and textures to safely explore. Toddlers who are not yet mobile can play on their tummies or in a seated position, while older ones can crawl or cruise over to different objects.
  • Be a model. Starting around 12 months, you can model the social behaviors you’d like your toddler to emulate. For instance, when meeting a new friend at the playground, you can introduce your toddler by saying, “Hi, I’m Jimmy. Would you like to play together?”
  • Take turns. Play turn-taking games with your toddler to help her learn about sharing. Also, play with trucks and ask to switch vehicles partway through or take turns styling each other’s hair with a brush or comb, for instance.
  • Play telephone. Use a toy phone to “talk” to family members or friends and invite your toddler to do the same. Sooner or later you are going to catch her talking on the phone.

At Perfect Angels Learning Center, we believe that pretend play is an important part of a toddler’s growth experience because it enhances their level of creativity, interpersonal skills, self-esteem, and their social and emotional development. To learn more about our childcare programs, visit our website now.