Imaginative & Pretend Play (Guide for Teachers and Parents)

Pretend play is a type of play characterized by make-believe scenarios. It is also known as imaginative play. It incorporates symbolic play, creativity, dramatization, role play, dress-ups and fantasy. Children begin to develop pretend play behaviors around age 2 and continue to engage in this sort of play for the remainder of their lives. It is a necessary skill for moving through Piaget’s preoperational stage of development.

Types of Pretend Play

Quick Overview: Pretend play has many names and overlaps with other versions of play. Below are several common other names for pretend play, each with their own spin on the concept.

1. Imaginative Play

We use the term ‘imaginative play’ when children break the rules that govern our world. Common types of imaginative play include pretending you have magical powers or imagining you are flying.

2. Fantasy Play

Fantasy play involves fantasizing about something while also breaking in and out of the dramatization. You will often encounter children turning to one another and saying “how about we change it so we do X now?” Fantasies often include children embodying the position of hero (or even superhero) whose role is to save the world from evil.

3. Sociodramatic Play

Sociodramatic play involves the dramatization of events in groups. It requires cooperation during play, where children often occupy roles (see also: Role Play). A central feature of the sociodramatic variation is that is requires extensive use of language, making it an excellent form of play for language development and sociocultural learning scenarios.

4. Role Play

Role play involves trying on and embodying different identities during play scenarios. A role play situation might involve role playing domestic scenarios such as cleaning (domestic role play) or fantasy identities such as firefighter or superhero (incorporating elements of dramatic play). Role play is often social, but can also be a form of solitary play.

Key Features

Quick Overview: Pretend play is characterized by use of imagination (including fantasy and dramatization), role play (trying on identities), and symbolism (such as pretending a wood block is a car).

1. Extrapolation (Imagination)

As children approach 2 years of age, they will begin to use their imagination to develop fantasies during their play. Children use their imagination to develop narratives during their play that may or may not reflect real life. At the start, children’s imaginative play usually reflects narratives they have seen on movies or elsewhere in their lives. They then extrapolate upon those narratives to create new story lines. As children get older, their fantasies get more and more inventive, creative and removed from narratives they have observed in real-life.

2. Trying on Identities

During pretend play, children try on different identities such as:

  • Superheros
  • Princes and Princesses
  • Policemen (Policewomen!) and firemen (Firewomen!)
  • Warriors, soldiers, pirates, etc.
  • Mom and Dad
  • Professionals such as doctors, teachers and nurses.

At the start, these identities may reflect those close to their home such as mom and dad’s identities. They will later try on identities from their favorite books and movies.

According to social constructionist theories, trying on identities is beneficial for children as they try to understand who they are in the world. Successful navigation of identity structures helps them to choose an identity that they are most comfortable with and helps them fit in (or stand out).

However, it is also believed that the trying-on of identities may be the beginning of reinforced gender roles in childhood.

Read Also: 14 Social Constructions of Childhood

3. Use of Symbols and Metaphors

Pretend play also often involves the use of symbols and metaphors. In this sense, it overlaps significantly with what we call ‘symbolic play’. Symbolic play tends to emerge quite early in childhood – for example, when children push blocks around the floor and pretend they are cars.

More complex symbols and metaphors include pretending you are a superhero, pretending to sip tea out of teacups, and pretending your toys are real-life friends.

Benefits of Pretend Play

Quick Overview: Pretend play encourages creativity, self-confidence, language development, physical development and identity formation.

  • Creativity: All forms of play-based learning encourage creativity. However, imaginative and fantasy play have a very strong influence on children’s creative thinking skills. During imaginative play, children have the freedom to invent and experiment.
  • Self-confidence: During play, children have the chance to uniquely express themselves. Further, children have the chance to practice and refine skills. These two elements feed into the development of self-confidence.
  • Language development: As children grow older, they increasingly engage in imaginative play with their peers. During peer-to-peer or adult-child play, children get the chance to practice language and vocabulary. They will also be exposed to new vocabulary when playing with others.
  • Physical development: During play, children use both fine and gross motor skills. When pretending to be a doctor, they pretend to take heat beats; when pretending to be a pirate, they learn to hold and use sticks as swords, etc.
  • Identity development: When taking up different identities during role play, children can try on different identities and see which identities make them most comfortable and happiest.
  • Symbolic Thought: Symbolic thought is necessary in older years, such as when children later use algebra and write stories in middle school. Symbolism during play is the precursor to these abstract reasoning skills.
  • Cognitive Development: Constructivist theorists argue that active ‘learning through doing’ helps children make connections in their minds and develop their thinking skills.

Age Range and Developmental Milestones

Quick Overview: There is no clear rule about when pretend play emerges, but a general rule-of-thumb is that it is somewhere between 3 months and 4 years, with 2 years of age being a commonly cited age marker.

Scholars are reluctant to provide a normative ‘rule’ for when we should see pretend play emerging. Different children develop at different rates – and that’s okay.

Furthermore, different elements of pretend play emerge at different ages, so it’s hard to define exactly when students have fully mastered this form of play.

However, some guidelines about what to expect have been provided. Two influential guides have been provided by Mildred Parten and Mary D. Sheridan – see below.

1. Parten’s Age Guidelines

Mildred Parten developed 6 linear stages of play. Parten claims that imaginative, symbolic and fantasy elements of play tend to emerge in the ‘Solitary Play’ stage of development – between 3 months and 2 1/2 years.

Here is Parten’s guide:

  1. Unoccupied Play (birth – 3 months)
  2. Solitary Play (3 months – 2 1/2 years) – symbolism and fantasy elements of play emerge.
  3. Onlooker (2 1/2 – 3 1/2 years)
  4. Parallel Play (3 1/2 – 4 years)
  5. Associative Play (4 – 4 1/2 years)
  6. Cooperative Play  (4 1/2 years +)

Read the Full Guide: Parten’s 6 Stages of Play

2. Mary D. Sheridan’s Age Guidelines

Mary D. Sheridan argues that pretend play emerges a few months before a child’s 2nd birthday. Here are her linear guidelines for emergence of play behaviors:

  1. Active Play (birth – 3 months)
  2. Exploratory and Manipulative Play (3 months – 7 months)
  3. Imitative Play (7 months – 9 months)
  4. Constructive Play (18 – 20 months)
  5. Make-Believe Play (20 – 26 months)
  6. Games with Rules (4 – 4 1/2 years)

Adult influence on Children’s Play

Quick Overview: Adults can strongly influence the emergence of imagination and make-believe during play. This can be both positive and negative.

1. Gender Roles

When students start employing role play during their games, gender roles become an inevitable issue. Parents and teachers will often notice their child talking about ‘boys’ vs ‘girls’ in their play scenarios without prompting.

Adults may have inadvertently influenced children’s ideas of gender roles. The relationship between mom and dad is a first indication. Toys and games we expose our children to may also give them subtle hints about what gender roles children should embody.

2. Books and Movies

In media, Disney films and other children’s movies may teach children gender roles such as ‘princes and princesses’ and heteronormative domestic behaviors. Children may express these learned behaviors during their play narratives.

However, it may be the case that gender has at least some biological relation to sex, and that some girls may naturally gravitate to feminine behaviors and some girls may naturally gravitate to masculine behaviors. While teachers’ colleges in the 21st Century tend to teach that gender is a social construction, it is hard to find conclusive empirical evidence to prove or disprove gender theories.

3. Adult involvement in Play

There are extensive debates about how much adults should be involved in children’s play. Advocates of adult involvement argue that children need adult guidance and instruction to help them develop. Advocates of unstructured play argue that adult involvement will interfere with imagination, creativity and self-confidence.

Final Thoughts

Pretend and imaginative play is very good for children’s creativity and skill development. It is only one of over 17 different types of play, but one that should be used in connection with other versions of play to help children to get a holistic range of childhood experiences.

References and Further Reading

Lillard, A. S., Lerner, M. D., Hopkins, E. J., Dore, R. A., Smith, E. D., & Palmquist, C. M. (2013). The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence. Psychological bulletin139(1).

Parten, M. (1929). An analysis of social participation, leadership, and other factors in preschool play groups. Retrieved from: https://www.worldcat.org/oclc/29143846.

Parten, M. (1932). Social participation among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology27(3): 243–269. doi: 10.1037/h0074524.

Sheridan, M., Howard, J., & Alderson, D. (2011). Play in early childhood. From Birth to six years. London: Routledge.

About The Author: Hi, I’m Chris Drew (Ph.D) and I run things around here. I’m an Education expert and university professor. You can read more about me here.