How to Encourage Pretend Play for Toddlers

As an early childhood educator, chances are you’re no stranger to imaginary friends, make-believe pets and other pretend characters dreamt up by your students. But did you know encouraging that behavior among your students can have drastic impacts on their development?

At ChildCare Education Institute, we’re dedicated to providing educators like you with the tools and training needed to help your students grow and thrive in the classroom.

That’s why we’re sharing this guide to the benefits of pretend play for toddlers, and how you can easily encourage it in your classroom.

What is pretend play?

Pretend play, also commonly known as dramatic or imaginative play, is a form of loosely structured symbolic play where young children use an action, object or toy to represent something else.

This is, quite simply, when kiddos play make believe.

This activity takes many shapes and forms. For instance, this could be a child riding a broomstick horse, pretending to fly to the moon, impersonating super heroes, hosting stuffed animals for tea time or any other sort of fantasy play.

The progression of pretend play for toddlers tends to follow the same pattern in all children.

It begins with imitation. This is when toddlers replicate something they’ve seen an adult do,  like putting an empty spoon or toy cup to their mouth copying the act of eating or drinking (even though they might not be cognizant of the reason for doing so).

Second, they will begin pretending by themselves. A common example of this is taking a “sip” from an empty cup. Next, they’ll use items to represent something else, e.g. pretending to sweep the floor using an empty paper towel holder. This is what’s referred to as symbolic play.

Then, usually around the time a child turns one, they begin involving others in pretend play. For example, after they take a “sip” from an empty cup, they’ll pass it over to you so you can have a drink too.

Following this phase, children then begin acting out sequences. For instance, a child might “bathe” and read a bedtime story to a stuffed animal before “putting it to sleep.” As a child gets older, these sequences will become more complex.

Why pretend play is important?

Pretend play for toddlers is critical to their development for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, pretend play helps them better understand the world around them. As they experiment with different scenarios, they learn about interests and what they like and dislike. Pretend play can also help them deal with confusing situations or cope with uncertainty by working out things that might be challenging or scary. One of the best examples of this is when a child plays doctor. Next time you see this happening, see how the child pretends to give their “patient” a shot. This is a prime example of a child working through what’s likely an unsettling experience for them.

Second, pretend play helps them develop language skills. When a child engages in pretend play, they strengthen their speech and vocabulary skills. Imaginative play also helps them learn to better understand and express their thoughts and feelings. If you watch carefully, you might observe them using words and phrases they picked up from you that you had no idea they knew.

Third, pretend play helps them develop emotionally and socially. As a child engages in imaginative play, they learn how to be more empathetic as they pretend to be different people and control objects and observe the results.

Fourth, pretend play helps with self-esteem. When you encourage pretend play, you give a child the room to be whoever they want to be and they have unlimited opportunities to experiment in a safe way that builds confidence. After all, what could boost confidence more than pretending to be Wonder Woman or Superman?

Finally, pretend play for toddlers encourages creativity and imagination. Pretend play enhances a child’s cognitive capacity and ultimately their creativity. When kids participate in pretend play, they get practice unlocking their imagination, a cognitive skill they’ll use for the rest of their lives.

How do I promote pretend play?

There are a number of ways to encourage imaginative play in children.

To start, don’t hamper who children play with. They might want to spend time alone pretending, talking to an imaginary friend; with other children engaged in pretend play; or they might want to involve you in their scenarios. In addition to building imagination, solo playtime helps kids learn self-entertainment, independence and even how to self soothe. And when they play with others, they develop those important social and emotional skills.

Exposing kids to new ideas, experiences and things can also help. This gives them material to pull from when they engage in pretend play. This includes fresh concepts as well as looking for ways to expand on their current interests.

Letting the child lead the play is also key. You might find yourself wanting to direct them, but that’s counterproductive to their development and the benefits of imaginative play. If they do ask for assistance, feel free to suggest prompts or gently guide them, but don’t take over the scenario.

You can also promote pretend play by praising them when they think outside the box. For instance, make sure to acknowledge and applaud them if they use a toy for something other than its intended purpose. Just like any other aspect of a child’s development, you want to reward positive behaviors so it encourages them

Finally, give them toys and props that help encourage them. While just about any toy can be used for something other than its intended purpose – after all, that’s the whole idea of pretend play for toddlers – there are certain items and objects that are better suited for it. More on that below!

What toys and activities encourage pretend play?

There are a number of great toys and items that foster imagination.

Stuffed animals

Kids’ stuffies are the perfect toy for pretend play because children can “care for” them during imaginative play. Stuffed animals make great guests for a tea party or other gathering as children’s imaginative play becomes more complex.


Dress-up is one of the most common activities when it comes to pretend play. And the best part is, you don’t need expensive or elaborate costumes. You can pull together a variety of hats, ties, bags, old Halloween costumes and other accessories from around the house. Children can then use their imaginations to act out different scenarios and create stories about who they’re pretending to be.

Cardboard boxes

Anyone who’s spent any time around toddlers knows that sometimes, a plain cardboard box beats the brightest, loudest or most expensive toy. There’s a reason for that – a cardboard box has unlimited possibilities. It can be a castle, car, robot, rocketship or any number of other things. So, look for various size cardboard boxes and make sure you always have a nice selection in your classroom.

Want to learn more about the importance of play, how to encourage it and more? We have a number of courses that can help!

The Importance of Play in Early Childhood is a two-hour intermediate course that covers the benefits of play, different types of play and ways to promote more play in children’s lives. It also highlights the importance of play for promoting optimal development across all domains. Our two-hour Focusing on Expressive Play and Artistic Development course addresses why various forms of play are important for a child’s development with an emphasis on expressive play, which can be incorporated throughout most activities in the early childhood environment.

To learn more about these courses, as well as our entire catalog of online professional development offerings, click here.