Importance of Pretend Play

Growing through Play

Pretend play is extremely important for toddlers and young children. I believe that children exposed to a variety of pretend play activities, both structured and unstructured, have greater language and cognitive skills than those who do not participate in pretend play.

Just to clarify, when I talk about pretend play I am referring to creative and imaginative play, not just physical play such as hide and seek, tag, dodge ball, etc. although this form of play does have many benefits.

There is an extensive amount of research that validates my feelings on the importance of pretend play. Check out this article written by Dr. S.B. Kaufman, Dr. J. Singer and Dr. D Singer: The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development. These doctors make reference to many research studies that have been conducted over the last 20-30 years (so this is not something new).

Some more research around the importance of pretend play came from Dr. Sara Smilansky (1922-2006) who was a professor at Tel Aviv University. Her research focused primarily on the benefits of play for children. She wrote many books on the topic of children’s play and how it related to learning. She also studied the effects of divorce and death on children. Dr. Smilansky worked with Jean Piaget for much of her research on children and play.


Stages of Play

Below are the 3 main stages of play according to Dr. Smilansky:

  1. Functional Play
  2. Exploratory Play

    Toddler moving toy truck
    This type of play typically occurs between 1 and 2 years of age. Infants and toddlers explore objects using their own body (e.g. sucking, touching, etc.). Children are learning about their bodies at the same time they are learning about objects in their environment.

    Relational Play

    Between 18 months and 2 years of age children often begin demonstrating forms of relational play. This is when they use an object for what it is meant to be used for. Some examples include: pushing cars around the floor, giving a teddy bear a drink, “feeding” a parent, etc.

    Encourage your children’s functional play skills by giving them safe objects to explore. Most plastic toys nowadays are BPA free and do not contain lead paint. You can also find many wood options as well if you are trying to stay away from plastic. There are some manufacturers such as Discover Toys who make high quality baby products and toys from some of the best materials.

    Show your baby/toddler how you feed a doll or bear and see if they will imitate you. If this is easy for your child, then add a few steps. Wipe the doll’s face and then give her a bath. You don’t need to actually fill the tub with water; we didn’t even have a toy bathtub in our house so I would use a box.


    For example, I would demonstrate by placing the doll into the box and then pretend to pour water onto the doll. Then I would use a cloth to wash the doll. My kids were always so thrilled by this and would imitate these actions right away.

    Make sure that you narrate as you go through the actions! The more words a child hears (and always use correct grammar), the greater their vocabulary!


  3. Constructive Play
  4. building with blocksThis stage typically occurs between 2 and 3 years of age. During this stage children begin to manipulate materials to create new objects and patterns.

    A child in this stage of play may use blocks to build a house or boat. Initially what the child produces may not be a true representation, but it does show the child’s attempts at working with materials to produce an effect. My children loved setting up blocks as roads for their cars to drive through!

  5. Dramatic Play
  6. Playing houseThis stage typically occurs after 3 years of age. This stage is also often referred to as symbolic play. During the dramatic play stage, children are imitating familiar scenarios via role play. Eventually this type of play leads to children co-operating around agreed upon themes.

    Children may also use an object to represent something other than its original purpose. For example, one may see a child using a building block as a phone or a popsicle stick as a spoon.

    Playing “house” is another example of dramatic play. This is a more advanced form of play as typically roles are assigned to each child involved (a mom, dad, brother, sister, baby, etc.) and the children then get into character. It is really interesting to watch children in this type of play.

    They really are little sponges so you need to be careful about what you say in front of them because during pretend play a child often mimics what he hears at home.


Games with Rules

Playing board gamesSome consider Games With Rules to be the 4th stage of pretend play. During this stage, children start being able to play games that have rules. These can be social/physical games such as “hide and seek” or “tag” or board games such as “Connect 4” or “Monopoly”.

Children must learn the importance of following rules as our society is built on rules. These early physical games or some simple board games teach children about co-operation, fair play, honesty and rule following.

Additional Research on the Benefits of Pretend Play

Studies show that the importance of pretend play in child development extends beyond simply language development.

  • Smith and Simon (1984) found that play can enhance children’s creativity and problem solving skills.

  • Bagley and Klass (1997) and Stone and Christie (1996) found that when books and other literacy-related materials were added to dramatic play, children used more varied language and showed an increase in reading and writing activities.

  • According to Pellegrini and Galda (1980), children who re-enacted stories with a beginning, middle and end demonstrated improved story comprehension as well as an understanding that others can have different thoughts, views, feelings and beliefs.


If you feel that your child is not demonstrating age appropriate play skills, please contact a Speech-Language Pathologist for a consultation. You can take a look at the resource page on SeeMe and Liz if you are unsure how to find a Speech-Language Pathologist in your area.
Keep in mind that children develop at their own pace; however, you as a parent or teacher know your child best and if you ever feel that something is wrong, do not hesitate to contact a professional.


By Tanya Thibodeau, a site dedicated to teaching parents how to best interact with their babies and young children in order to enhance language development and learning

This article originally appeared on Seeme and Liz and is reprinted with permission.


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