Let's Pretend! A Guide to Imaginative Play

Let's Pretend! A Guide to Imaginative Play

Let's Pretend! A Guide to Imaginative Play

How can you get back that feeling of wonder from your childhood?

Do you reminisce about playing with blocks or a wooden railway? Digging around in the garden or the sand pit? Or, perhaps, drawing and painting?

Those were all happy times, for sure, but to truly reawaken the spirit of childhood we need some magic words:

Once upon a time…

See? That did it. You were immediately transported back to a time of make-believe, of imaginative play.

There’s something special about imaginative play. We instinctively understand that this is the highest form of play.

Let’s take a look at how we can get more of it.

Table of contents

What is imaginative play?

Imaginative play is not just role play or dressing up. It is not only a game of let’s pretend. It encompasses any activity where your child creates a story.

Small world play, games in the home corner, dramatic and sociodramatic play: whether you play with figures or dress up and get into role, the type of play is the same. You are creating a story.

One of the main benefits of imaginative play is that it encourages cognitive flexibility. In other words, it makes children more creative. They have to respond to the other participants’ needs and emotions and think on their feet as they negotiate the play. They also have to make the best use of the available resources. Don’t have a soldier’s helmet? How about this biscuit tin instead?

Pretend play also gives children the freedom to take risks, to imagine themselves in dangerous or frightening situations, whilst shielded from the consequences of mistakes.

Here is a lion. Do I run or climb up the tree?

Here is the school bully. Am I bold enough to confront him? Am I brave enough to handle him without calling the teacher?

All of these scenarios can be explored with imaginative play.

Child playing with wooden dolls

What age does imaginative play start?

Babies and younger toddlers don’t play imaginatively.

They are exploring their bodies and the world around them. How does this feel? What does that taste like? What happens when I drop it?

Until they understand the world as it is, they can’t imagine how it could be.

But one day, they discover that one object can stand in for another: this toy car represents a real one. I can play with it and pretend it is real. I give it the qualities of a real car, too. It drives, goes vroom, vroom, turns corners and reverses. But it doesn’t fly.

Over time, children learn to use symbols that are less like the object they represent. This block is a car, this cereal box is a computer.

And now imaginative play can begin.

Here is a witch, here is a wolf. A wicked witch, a ravening wolf. Layer upon layer of meaning is added as your child’s understanding grows.

For younger children, pretend play starts in the here and now. Whether it’s a small world scene or a role play activity, your child prefers everyday scenarios. Perhaps she will tell a domestic tale in the doll’s house or - with the help of a satchel - pretend to be the postman on his delivery round.

Above all, her games will be related to real life, to people and places that she is familiar with.

But as she grows, her play will become more creative. And the stories she hears and the places she goes will enrich her games.

A moral education

There is a strong moral thread running through your child’s play at this stage. She is learning what it is to be good - and what happens if you are not. Through imaginative play, she explores what might happen if she transgresses - without the consequences of doing so in real life. The naughty mouse steals biscuits from the cupboard! How should he be punished?

But Mr. Mouse was hungry and he had to feed his poor, starving children. Is it fair that he is reprimanded? Perhaps we should give him a food parcel instead?

What a great way to develop her emotional intelligence!


A child playing with wooden animals


The best toys for imaginative play

Setting up imaginative play activities is simple. Our job as parents is to offer the materials and get out of the way.

An eight-year-old needs very few props but younger children benefit from some structure. By offering a play kitchen or a wooden railway, you suggest a starting point. Your child is familiar with the territory and her play flows more easily.

Home corner

  • When you first experiment with imaginative play, a simple toy kitchen in the home corner is a great place to start.
  • Dressing up clothes. Who will you be today?
  • Rehearse everyday conversations and introduce basic maths and number recognition with a market stall.

Small world play

You don’t have to be the hero in your pretend play. With small world play, your toys take centre stage. The important thing is to include figures. Play with a train set or toy cars and the dialogue won’t go much further than choo, choo! and vroom! vroom! But add a few characters and you have a story.

  • An all-time favourite, and with good reason. Wooden train sets are a hit with younger toddlers, who enjoy the schema play possibilities but older children are charmed by the narrative potential of an entire world contained in a loop of track.

A wooden train set

  • The original small world setting, the doll's house has a timeless appeal. For children, there is nothing more interesting that rehearsing everyday family life.
  • Toy castles offer the perfect mix of dialogue and action. And there are plenty of stories you can read at bedtime to inspire the play.

A child playing with a toy dragon

Playing with dolls

Between small world play and role play sit rag dolls and soft toys. When you don’t have a playmate - or need one more - they can be wonderful companions, always willing to play their part.

A child holding rag dolls

Loose parts and junk modelling

As a child, I used to imagine that the bumps of an upturned egg box were the igloo-type home of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru from the first Star Wars film. Out would come my toy figures and I’d start to narrate the action.

Then I’d look around the house for other materials to bring into the story. The box of spare buttons was the smuggler’s treasure, the thimble from the sewing kit became R2-D2.

Toddlers are too young for this kind of play - they can’t see beyond the materials’ form - but if you have a preschooler, try offering a box of recycled materials. You might be surprised what your child comes up with.


Make your own den, castle or other enclosure with everyday furniture. A couple of chairs with a blanket strung across them is all you need. A sheet over a branch in the garden works equally well. Creating an enclosed space inevitably sparks a story about inside and out, about them and us.

Craft materials

When you’ve rummaged through the toy box, the dressing up clothes and the kitchen cupboard and you still can’t find what you need, why not make it? An easy-access tray or trolley containing pencils, paper, card, scissors and glue is a playroom essential.

How to fire your child’s imagination

Imaginative play develops naturally, as your child grows. She learns that objects can be symbols, that they can stand for something else.

However, a diet rich in good books and fun days out will add depth and variety to the bank of experiences she can call on during her play.

If your child loves fairy tales, read as many of them as you can. But also consider going to the theatre. My children loved Wolf Witch Giant Fairy at the Linbury Theatre and it inspired their play for weeks afterwards. 

If your toy castle is where all the action is, read a book about King Arthur or one where the Famous Five visit Kirrin Island. Even better, visit Corfe Castle, the real-life inspiration for Kirrin.

A visit to Gifford's Circus

With permission, Gifford's Circus © Andy Payne

Of you could try something completely new. We recently visited Giffords Circus and the children were spellbound. Human pyramids, performers leaping from horse to horse, a knife-thrower. It was a magical experience.

Lastly, don't forget that you can join in the play yourself. Sometimes the play gets stuck and it needs a nudge from you. Perhaps you will supply an interesting prop or a new idea. You don't have to stay for long. Ignite the fuse and retreat to a safe distance.  Children playing at a pretend cafe

Final word

As your child’s thinking develops, so too will her imaginative play.

Toddlers prefer realistic settings and props but by the time they are preschoolers, they are happy to explore imagined worlds.

Make sure to read lots of stories and offer rich experiences like trips to the theatre and zoo and your child’s imagination will soar.

By Alexis Ralphs