8 Ideas to Encourage Pretend Play

When kids pretend they're pirates or secret agents, or create their own characters using dolls or Lego figures, it seems like they're playing simple games—literally engaging in child's play. But what's going on when kids use their imaginations and pretend when they play is actually very complex, and very good for kids' development.

It encourages creativity. The power of kids' imaginations is a wondrous thing to behold. All they need is some time, space, and your encouragement, and they can be anything and go anywhere, just by pretending. They make up stories and adventures and create whole worlds and dialog and action sequences naturally, without even thinking about it—this is creativity in its purest form.

Pretend play allows kids to reflect what they experience in the world around them and re-create social relationships through play. Kids make sense of the world and mimic the social interactions they see around them through imaginative play with friends, siblings, parents, and even stuffed animals. Kids will share with a teddy bear, give them a check-up, praise them for sharing, or make them some tea at a tea party. It's not only adorable, but it's a great way for kids to put into practice the interpersonal skills and dynamics they're learning. (And if you catch them sounding just like you or your spouse, it'll be an important reminder of the importance of not using colorful language and speaking nicely to people around the kiddos.)

It encourages cooperation and conflict resolution. If your child and their friend want to be the same princess when they play, they may decide to take turns. Or your child may learn to play a game their older brother wants to play in exchange for a promise that they'll play their game the next time.

How to Promote Pretend Play

When putting the suggestions below into practice, it can help to:

Let kids play alone and with friends or with you. When kids play alone, they can create their own games and let their imaginations lead them. When they play with you or with friends, they work on social and emotional skills while they use their imaginations. Both are important and valuable.

Let them lead. When you pretend-play with kids, try not to guide them. If they ask you for help or for ideas, you can suggest prompts. But as a general rule, let your child take the lead and figure out what and how you'll play.

Encourage them when they don't follow instructions and use toys in new and creative ways. Sure, it's fun to build the truck or building according to the instruction manual that comes with the Lego or Playmobil set. But it's great when kids decide to mix and match parts from different sets to create their own designs and scenarios, too. Let your child know you love their creations and ideas.


Have Cardboard Box, Will Travel

pretend play - girls in cardboard box playing pirates

Gary Burchell / Getty Images

Parents know that kids don't need expensive toys to have fun and that one of the most beloved and often-used favorite plaything for kids is an ordinary cardboard box. With it, they can create anything their imaginations can think of, from a rocket ship to a car, or even a pirate ship sailing on the high seas, and pretend to have lots of adventure and excitement in their box ... er, awesome vessel or vehicle. 


App-Solutely Fun Movies Directed and Scripted by Your Child

pretend play - boy on floor with Lego

Cultural RM / Ian Spanier

Here's a very cool idea that'll keep your child entertained for hours: Use your cell phone to take photos or videos of action scenes (or let older kids do this themselves if they're careful with the phone). Some apps allow you to stitch together photos to make a stop-motion animated film, and your child can make it look like Iron Man or a Disney Princess is walking across a room or fighting a bad guy, or have a Lego minifig driving a toy car—or anything else your child can think of.

Not only does this activity encourage kids to pay attention to detail and be patient, it lets them make their imagination come to life. Plus, kids will love creating little movies using their toys and will love showing off their work at their movie "screening" during family movie night.


Play Dress-Up

pretend play - mother daughter dress up tea party

Jamie Grill / Getty Images

Who knew something as simple as playing dress-up and having a pretend tea party could offer kids so many benefits? When you give your child a box of simple accessories like hats, plastic tiaras, and old Halloween costumes, they can become anyone they can think of, from a princess having a tea party to a good pirate who gives out riches instead of taking them. They can use their imaginations to create stories about who they are and what adventures they're having, and create other characters for the pretend scenarios.

And when parents join the fun, there's even more good news: Research has shown that kids whose parents play with them are more likely to be happy and less likely to experience anxiety or depression.


Fortress of Fun

pretend play ideas - kids in a fort indoors

All kids really need to create a fort—which seems to be an activity that all kids inherently love doing—is a blanket or sheet and some chairs. That's it. With that, kids can pretend they're guarding a castle against invaders, hiding out from enemy spies, or camping out in the wilderness.

And since kids will likely want to stay in their fort most of the day, you'll probably have to give them snacks or a sandwich while they're holed up in the security of their fortress of fun.


Kitchen Cooking

pretend play ideas - kids baking in kitchen

Peter Cade / Getty Images

Another thing most kids love to do is to create special dishes in play kitchens. School-age kids love playing restaurant—being a waiter taking down orders, cooking up yummy treats in the kitchen, and then serving the customers.

And the best part of kitchen play with big kids is that they can often help with real cooking and baking by doing tasks like helping measure and mix ingredients to bake something or tearing lettuce leaves or washing cherry tomatoes for a salad.


Check-Ups and Tea Parties With Stuffed Animals

pretend play ideas - boy playing doctor with toy bear and stethoscope

Jeff Cadge / Getty Images

As much as kids may hate going to the pediatrician and getting shots, they love pretending to be a doctor and giving their stuffed animal friends check-ups and shots. Stuffed animals are also often used by kids when they set up tea parties or act as diners when they open a pretend restaurant and serve meals out of their play kitchens.

These pretend play scenarios with stuffed toys often reflect what kids are picking up in their social interactions with the people around them, and what they observe in the relationships of people they know. In other words, if you encourage kindness and empathy in your child, you're likely to see them being a caring pretend doctor or a chef who wants to please the people they're feeding with healthy food.

Common toys such as play stethoscopes or a small flashlight and Popsicle stick can help kids give stuffed toys checkups. Play food and some toy pots and pans or a toy kitchen can encourage kids to whip up great pretend meals. Or your child may just choose to put their stuffed toys to bed and read them a bedtime story. Whatever they choose to pretend, it'll likely reflect parts of their own life and experience.


Indoor Olympics

pretend play - father and son indoor Olympics with toy cars

Nick Dolding / Getty Images

Get a little exercise into imaginative play by holding an indoor Olympics. You can line up toy cars to make lanes for racing or hold other races/events like timing how fast each "athlete" can put on all the hats and costumes in a dress-up clothes box or walk from one marker to another while carrying a boiled egg on a spoon. 


Finger Puppet Play

pretend play ideas - finger puppet play

Have your child come up with a story and script and characters and use finger puppets to put on a play. They can work with friends or siblings or you to make scenery and collaborate with fellow writers or work on their own to bring a story to life and perform it for an audience when they're done. They can even choose songs or better yet, make up their own! 

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Russ SW. Pretend play: Antecedent of adult creativityNew Dir Child Adolesc Dev. 2016;2016(151):21‐32. doi:10.1002/cad.20154

  2. Gibler RC, Kalomiris AE, Kiel EJ. Paternal anxiety in relation to toddler anxiety: The mediating role of maternal behavior. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev. 2018;49(4):512‐522. doi:10.1007/s10578-017-0771-7

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.