Pretend Play – Encourage It, Model It, Enjoy It

For years it was thought that pretend play was an indicator of intelligence and necessary for normal childhood development.   Current studies are finding a link between the absence of pretend and imaginary play and autism.  I found one study that is now questioning the validity of the more traditional studies, but in any case pretend and imaginative play is an enjoyable part of most childhood experiences and does have its cognitive benefits.

Noah’s (6-DS) first experiences with pretend play centered around food (no surprise there).  He would use our plastic toy food and pretend he was taking bites out of it.  He would push the grocery cart around the house with play food in it.  And who can forget the way he’d take our empty plastic grocery bags and fill them with all the play food, Duplos, cars, and anything else he could get his hands on.  I’m guessing he was 4-1/2 when we first noticed this kind of play.  Typical children generally start doing this around age 2.

Well, Noah’s taking the next step, and it is sooooo exciting.  Okay, picking up sticks and holding them to his face and saying something along the lines of boom is not what I had in mind, but the point is he is using one object and pretending it is another because it involves symbolism, using one object to represent another.

We found him the other day “riding” the wood pile like he was on his hippotherapy horse.  When he saw I was watching him, he signed “horse.”


And then the other day I was making an activity with craft sticks, and he started playing with them.  See the blue and red figure below?  Know what he’s signing?  “House” (his version of house).  He took four perfectly anonymous sticks and turned them into a house completely on his own and then signed to me what he had done.  Huge!


In this age of autism, one of the things that tips parents and doctors off to a possible diagnosis is the absence of imaginative play.  Autism is such a sneaky thing, I think doing everything we can to encourage normal development is a good idea.  From the time your child starts to play with toys, you can be modeling and encouraging imaginative/pretend play.  Get down on the floor, eye level with your child, and pretend with him.  You can’t make him ready for this kind of play, but you can model it for him and give him an environment rich in possibilities.

Here are some ideas for imaginative play using things you probably already have:

Stuffed animals – From a very early age babies enjoy getting “kisses” from their stuffed toys.  Use blankets, pillows, baby doll strollers, and toy food to model doing everyday activities with the stuffed animals.  Encourage your child to do the same.

Peek-A-Boo – Throw a blanket over your head and say, “Where’s Mommy?”  Let your child pull the blanket off and then say, “You found me!”  If your child enjoys this kind of game, put the blanket (a small one, please) on his head and say, “Where’s Baby?  Oh no.  Where did Baby go?  Baby?  Baby?”  Let them pull the blanket off while you respond enthusiastically.

Play food and baby doll bottles – Play picnic with your child, filling play plates with play food and pretending to eat.  If you have a toy tea set, use drinking water and encourage your child to pour cups for herself and you.

Bath toys – Bath time is a great opportunity for pretend play because your child will probably be content to be in the bath for quite some time and will not have distractions competing for his attention.  Use plastic fish and a homemade magnetic play fishing pole and let your child go “fishing.” When he catches one, congratulate him and say things like, “Yum, yum, you caught a fish.  I LOVE fish.  We’re going to eat fish for dinner.”  Take a pretend bite, “Yummmm.”   Bath time is also a good time to bring out a washable baby doll and allow your child to give her a bath.

Hobby horses or horse heads on a stick (sorry, I don’t know what else to call them) – Kids LOVE riding, and this kinesthetic activity gets them up and moving and looking for more opportunities to pretend.

Riding toys – What child doesn’t love a Little Tykes police car or taxi cab?  Ask your child where he’s going.   Set up a destination point for him, i.e., a play grocery store where he can “buy” plastic food, put it in a grocery bag, and take it back home.

As your child grows, he will be ready for a more symbolic-type imaginative play style.  Here are some ways you can stimulate symbolic play:

Most importantly, provide materials.  Keep an accessible array of craft supplies handy – markers, cotton balls, glitter, paper, etc.  As your child creates, talk about what he is creating.  Ask questions about the creation.

For inside play, use blocks and other small objects to load large toy trucks and pretend the blocks are rocks or boxes.

Play-Doh – A great building material for symbolic play.  Model building 3-D objects like houses or rocks or animals.

Dress up – Keep a basket or drawer stocked with capes, tutus, hats, old Halloween costumes, fancy shoes, etc.  Make sure to pay lots of attention to your child as they explore and try on the different items.  To a child, attention can be a huge motivator when it comes to creative play.

Guess the Animal Game – This is another great kinesthetic activity and also targets large muscle/gross motor work.  Choose an animal and move like it on the floor.  Teach your child the movements for several animals.  Then take turns making the moves while the other person guesses what animal you are being.

How about you?  I know you’re a creative bunch.  What pretend and symbolic play do your children enjoy?


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