5 Ways to Encourage Pretend Play

Lawrence Cohen, PhD

My niece Sofia, who is two-and-a-half, loves make-believe play, and she has taught me that the textbooks are wrong when they say that this is the territory of three-year-olds.  Certainly, at three children are more complex and dramatic in their make-believe play, and they can (sometimes) handle sharing the creative-director job with a friend.  But the beginnings of pretend play start much earlier, often even before age two.  However, we have to be on the lookout for these early excursions into imagination, because they may be subtle.

Here are some ways to foster creativity and imagination in your toddler:

Introduce make-believe into everyday situations:  For example, if your child asks for a cookie, first offer a toy cookie, or even a small block and say, “let’s pretend.”  Pretend to take a bite and offer a bite to her.  Soon she’ll be offering you a block and telling you it is a sippy cup.

Make sure to have toys that foster imaginative play: Such as toy food, toy cars, dress-up clothes, and small-sized versions of adult objects (like phones, kitchen appliances, etc.)

Help children “explode” with imagination: Show them how many different things you can do with a box or an empty paper-towel roll.  (They can be a drum and a trumpet, a hat and a fake nose, a shoe and a tail, the moon and a rocket ship--those are just a couple of ideas to get you started.)

Don’t expect the earliest trips into make-believe to be too complex: It may be as simple as feeding or burping a dolly, or talking for a few seconds into a pretend phone.  But watch as your child develops and begins playing in this way for longer and longer.

Don’t be afraid!  Some parents feel uncreative and uninspired when it comes to pretend play, and they worry that they won’t know what to do.  Don’t worry.  Your child just wants to share this world with you, so don’t be afraid of looking a little silly, and let your own imagination run a little wild, too!