Encouraging pretend-play

You’re folding laundry when Baby puts a sock to their ear and says, “hello?” Of course, this doesn’t mean they are confused about what clothing is for – rather, they are imitating familiar actions as they start to wander into the world of pretend-play. Maybe Baby sees you talking on the phone while you fold clothes, and they want to imagine they are doing the same.

Pretend-play, also known as symbolic play or dramatic play, is a milestone toddlers often start to hit around 18 months. This form of play means they are using their imagination to imitate others and to personify objects around them. Children this age will enjoy using toys that resemble items grownups use, such as plastic keys, or play phones. Pretend-play is both fun for adults to watch and important for children to engage in, as it encourages them to use their imaginations to try something new.

Types of imaginative play

Baby may have started to display signs of “self-pretend” play, like pretending to eat or sleep. The next step, called “simple pretend,” happens when they perform actions on toys or people. Examples of pretend play can include giving a bottle to a doll, or using fake keys in the door. This type of play shows that Baby is observing the world around them, and is making appropriate connections about the use of everyday objects. They are pretending to be like the adults they see by acting out what they do throughout the day.

The importance of play

Play is said to be the work of children, and for good reason: it’s how they learn. Not only is playing fun for kids, but it also sparks their curiosity, and encourages them to try new things. Toddlers are expected to follow many rules throughout the day, but through pretend-play, Baby has the opportunity to be whoever they want.

Making the most of pretend-play

  • Gauge your child’s interests: Some children enjoy their play kitchen, while others can’t get enough of their train table, so start with Baby’s favorite toy and go from there. Pretend to prepare dinner for one of their stuffed animals, or to conduct a race with their trains, and let them jump in to help.
  • Start simple: Toys that do all the work for them, like a phone that makes a call with a touch of a button, take away the aspect of imagination. Stick with basic toys that allow for them to add their own spin without being pigeonholed.
  • Provide the right setting: Maybe when you’re reading a book, you can stop to ask what the character does next, or who might enter into the story on the following page. Take breaks from the activity to allow Baby to offer their own creative insight, or ask them questions about the squirrels and bugs you’re walking past on your way to the playground.
  • Know when to step in (or step back): You don’t always want to be watching from the sidelines, but sometimes it’s best to let Baby take the reins. Witnessing pretend-play from a distance can teach you about Baby’s feelings toward particular objects, and even understand ways in which they perceives the world around them.

  • Miller, Susan A., Ed.D, Ellen Booth Church, and Carla Poole. “Ages & Stages: Imagine & Pretend.” Scholastic. Early Childhood Today, n.d. Web. 02 Jan. 2017.
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