25 ways to pretend

Preschoolers love to pretend. This is not just a way to keep busy and fill in time; it is also a valuable way to learn and develop a range of language, thinking and social skills.

Why is pretending important for development?

Pretend play involves many skills including emotions, thinking, language, the senses and movement and so it is thought that it helps to build links between the different parts of the brain responsible for different functions.

Pretend play involves understanding other people. Pretending to be another person whether it is mum or dad, a baby or a ballerina, a princess or a pirate involves thinking about another person's role, how they feel and act and how they see the world. This develops a child's theory of mind. Theory of mind is a higher level thinking skill important for learning and social development which can be challenging for children with special needs to develop.

Pretend play helps to develop story telling skills which are important in the development of literacy skills. In acting out pretend scenarios children become a character which performs a series of actions to achieve a goal or solve a problem. This is just what happens when we tell a story.

Pretend play allows opportunities to develop social language, higher level thinking and social skills. When children play together they learn to negotiate, explain, share, take turns, problem solve and respond to the comments, actions and emotions of others.

Pretend play allows children to work through their emotions and deal with any stresses they may feel. A child who finds the day challenging can feel powerful and in control when pretending to be a superhero or a lion tamer. A child who feels lonely and isolated can feel a sense of belonging when playing families.

The development of pretend play skills:

Pretending begins when toddlers show an understanding of how objects are used and copy the actions they see others do. Two year olds begin to do true pretending where they imagine that things are "real" such as eating pretend food. They also begin to pretend that an object is something else such as pushing a block along, making car noises and pretending that the block is a car. They can "imagine" objects that are not there such as putting a pretend hat on a doll. They can also pretend that they are something else, such as "being" a character like a pirate or an animal like a tiger.

By three to four years preschoolers begin to combine actions and objects to act out scenes. They use a mixture of people, real objects and imaginary objects to act out sequences of actions and whole scenes such as a tea party, caring for babies or going to the petrol station. Play scenes may be based on things that the child has experienced or on things they have seen but not experienced such as through stories and movies.

To help your child develop pretend play skills:

Allow time for pretend play. As parents and educators we are concerned that our children learn the things that are seen as important for schooling such as letters, colours, shapes and numbers so it is tempting for playtime to become "teaching time". Allowing children to play freely is also important. Screen time takes up more and more of a child's day so make a regular time to turn off the TV, iPad and computer and allow your child to play.

Allow space for pretend play. Play can be messy. It also take longer to save the world from invading dragons than to do a jigsaw puzzle. Try to find a place where your child can play for a longer period without being in the way of adults or needing to pack up too soon. If you have the space for your child to set up a pretend world and return to it later more complex play can develop.

Provide partners for play. Your child can benefit greatly from time to play alone but pretending with others allows lots more opportunities and challenges for language, thinking and socialising. By finding time to play with your child you can have fun together, extend their skills and develop your relationship. By finding other children to join in the play your child can learn valuable social skills and build friendships.

Provide materials for pretend play. Pretend play toys can be inexpensive. You don't need to buy the worlds best cubby house or a ride on motorised sports car. A cardboard box can be both a cubby and a sports car for free and tomorrow it can be something else.

Some simple things worth collecting for your child include:

  • Toys for role playing such as cooking sets, tea sets, shopping sets, pretend tools. Cheap plastic sets work fine as do real items from the kitchen or opp shop.

  • Props for dressing up. These can include old adult clothes, hats, shoes, handbags. Cheap shops have pretend costumes, hats, masks and jewellery at good prices.

  • Characters such as dolls, teddies, stuffed toys and puppets to play roles when your child needs someone extra to play.

  • Toys to create mini worlds, such as plastic animals, toy cars, train sets, dinosaurs, dolls houses.

  • Items to extend play. Adding play dough to a tea set, blocks to farm animals, sand or gravel to trucks or dinosaurs can allow many more possibilities.

  • Favourite themes. Have a box to collect items around your child's favourite theme. If your child loves pirates collect things such as an eye patch, sword, stuffed parrot, pirate hat, flag (old pillowcase), boxes for treasure, maps, a telescope (cardboard tube covered with foil), jewellery and coins for treasure.

  • Collect items that can be many things. An old pillowcase can be a rug for a picnic, a cape for a superhero, a blanket for a doll, a curtain for a puppet show, a flag for a pirate ship, a rabbit holder for a magic show and many other things your child will dream up.

Ways to extend your child's play:

  • Think about new words and concepts your child can learn while playing with a theme. Include lots of specific nouns and verbs related to the theme and include describing words as well. Encourage your child to use dialogue to speak like a character and to speak to their pretend characters as they play. Talk about their play afterwards and help them share their ideas with others.

  • Borrow a story book or a non-fiction book about your theme from the library to learn more.

  • Take photos of your child playing and use them to develop a storybook or slide show, or video your children acting out a scene to make a book or movie to show family members. There are some great journal apps where kids can use photos and record their voice to make a story book.

  • Once you have a basic set of props you can keep these in a box, play with them time and time again, add to them and reuse them in different ways as your child grows and develops.

Here are some fun ideas for pretend play:

1. Dress ups are a cheap and fun way to pretend. You can buy commercially made costumes if you chooose which allows your child to play characters they love from from movies, TV and books. Try op- shops for some real bargains or make your own dress ups. As well as interesting clothes, look for belts, hats, scarves, shoes, handbags, wallets, sunglasses and cloths that can be used for capes. You can also add extras like hats, wands, and pretend jewellery.Your child will love to dress up in your shoes, sunglasses and handbags and pretend to be an “adult” so check the back of your wardrobe and you may not need to spend anything at all for a fun afternoon.

2. Cubbies are great for developing pretend play skills. Cubbies don’t have to be a house. They can also be a shop, a cafe’, a post office, a fire station, a doctor’s surgery, a pet shop, a vet surgery or whatever captures your child’s interest. All you really need is an enclosed space, such as a large cardboard box (try asking a shop that sells furniture or white goods if they have one to spare) or a blanket, sheet or tarp spread over some chairs, a table or a clothes airer. You can buy cheap pop up tents in toy shops and “cheap shops” that are portable, easy to put away and can be used over and over inside and outside for a wide range of activities.

3. Play shops. You can set up a shop in a cubby or just use a children’s table or coffee table as a counter. You can use empty packages or even full ones from your kitchen cupboard as stock for your shop. You can add plastic fruit and vegetables or play food from cheap shops too. Help your child to arrange their “stock” talking about sizes, which boxes are big, small, heavy, light, wide, narrow, tall or short. You can arrange them in order and talk about comparatives “big, bigger, biggest”. You can also practice sorting foods into different types using describing words and categories. You can use a box to make a cash register or you can buy pretend ones in toy shops. You can also buy play money or you can make your own. Put some numbers on paper and attach to your groceries to make price tickets. Use social skills to request things, ask for information, use please, excuse me and thank you and give help.

4. Playdough is a cheap, flexible play activity that lends itself to all kinds of pretending. It works well to extend play with tea sets and cooking utensils. You can also use it to feed plastic animals, or carry in toy trucks. A flat base of playdough is great for making a base for a mini world, as trees, animals and fences will stand up better. There are lots of different recipes for making your own playdough with different colours textures and even scents. These are cheap and so can be replaced when needed.

5. Soft toys can be used for a whole range of pretend play activities. They can be passengers on a bus, customers in a shop, patients at the vet clinic or just friends on a picinic.

6. Mini worlds. Cheap plastic sets can be bought in shops. You can build a farm, jungle, zoo or construction site or make a prehistoric world with dinosaurs. You can add blocks, or lego and mix a couple of sets together such as animals and vehicles to extend the play.

7. Vehicles are always popular. You can buy a mat with roads for smaller vehicles or draw your own on a large sheet of cardboard or use chalk on the ground outside. Put trainsets and cars together for more complex play and add some plastic animals or figurines. Why not take the cars outside for some four wheel drive adventures or into the sandpit for a construction site. Bigger vehicles are also great in sandpits. Include some dolls or stuffed toys as passengers in larger vehicles. If you don't have larger vehicles a box or laundry basket will do or a line of chairs can make a great bus or train.

8. Sand and water play allows for lots of different themes such as cooking, bathing dolls or plastic animals and making building sites.

9. Dolls houses allow for lots of different types of role play. Add animals and plastic or wooden people to expand the options. Your house could also be a castle, firestation or space station too.

10. Blocks are great for all kinds of things, but in terms of pretending they work best when animals, cars or toy people are added to expand the possibilities.

11. Cardboard and boxes can be just about anything. Small boxes can be used to set up a pretend shop, larger ones can be a car, bus or train and very large ones can be a cubby. Help your child draw details on the boxes and cut out doors or windows for them. Add some soft toys to join in the play.

12. Books can provide the inspiration for all kinds of pretending. Non-fiction books can expand your child's understanding of a topic which they can then use as a theme for play. Stories can be acted out. You can also use your books for a pretend library.

13. Occupations can be the basis of all kinds of pretending. Your child can be a doctor, nurse, vet, postman, shop keeper, hair dresser, teacher, librarian, astronaut, fireman, or more.

14. Outdoor fun. Gather up your tea set and teddies and go outside for a picinics or camping trip. Get some binoculars or a magifying glass and be an explorer and look for bugs in the garden.

15. Puppets can be bought cheaply or you can make your own out of socks or paperbags. You could make the characters from your child's favourite book or some characters to go with a theme.

16. Fantasy themes are lots of fun. You can use fairies, dragons, witches and knight figurines. You could make a mini world for them with playdough or make a mini garden in a container. You could make your own figurines out of cardboard rolls or make dressups and masks out of cardboard.

17. Dinosaurs are always popular. If you have a set of plastic dinosaurs why not make them a prehistoric world with rocks and sticks from the garden. For inside play use a playdough base on a baking tray with pop sticks, smooth stones and plastic plants.

18 Sea themes are lots of fun. Lay out a towel on the floor and pretend to go to the beach or put on your swimming goggles and pretend to be under the sea. Use a cardboard box as a boat and go fishing. You can make paper fish add paperclips and catch them with a magnetic "fishing rod".

19. Everyone loves pirates. Make a hat, eye patch and sword. Collect items such as stuffed parrots, pirate hats, flag (old pillowcase), boxes for treasure, maps, a telescope (cardboard tube covered with foil), jewellery and plastic (or chocolate) coins for treasure.

20. Families. Kids love to pretend to be the adults in their life. Let them dress up in some of your clothes and shoes and do the things they see you do everyday. Maybe they could pretend to do the things they think you do at work too. This can be an fascinating way to see how your child views your world.

21. Food play allows for all kinds of themes around cooking such as families, resturants, cafes and picnics. You can use plastic play food, real food, empty food packages or playdough. You can use a tea set or real items from the kitchen. Include some "friends" such as teddies and get some conversation going about likes and dislikes, tastes and textures, procedures for cooking, serving, eating and cleaning up.

22. Housework. Preschool kids also love to pretend to do cleaning and things they see you do around the house. You can get minuture play items to use, use the real thing or build your own pretend items. Let them play alongside you as you do the washing and then dishes and even join in on the real thing. Enjoy this stage, it won't last.

23. Facepainting can be a way to inspire your child to act out characters. You can get cheap sets of facepaint in craft shops and ideas for patterns in the library or online. Let your child look at themselves in the mirror and act out their character. Take some photos or video.

24. Cop and robbers, superheroes and emergency workers. Kids love to save the world from the bad guys. Some simple props such as a cape (or pillowcase) and a mask are all that are needed. Don't tie things around your child's neck; it is safer to attach a cape to their shirt with some pegs or clips. These are great games to play outside or at the playground as there can be lots of running, climbing and chasing involved.

25. Birthday parties. Kids love parties, so if you haven't had one for a while why not give a doll or teddy a party. Party activities are cheap to buy and you can make a cake and wrap up some toys as presents. Make a few party games such as pass the parcel and make your toys and t

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