When Does Pretend Play Start?

By Katrina Oliver

Pretend play is one of the simplest and sweetest activities of childhood, and it’s also one that’s critical for healthy development.

Because it’s so critical for a child’s healthy development, it can be helpful for parents to understand what stages of pretend play they can expect to see in their children at varying ages of development.

The truth is that there’s no single time at which pretend play will appear, but rather a child’s ability to pretend will grow and develop over time, just like all their other skills!

First Signs Of Pretend: 18-24 Months

Around the time your little one is a year and a half, start watching out for the first signs of pretend play.

It may be that your child tries to put their play keys into a doorknob, tries to apply makeup to their face using your beauty brushes, or picks up your phone and pretends to talk to someone.

Toddlers love to imitate!

So whatever they frequently see you doing is most likely to be the first thing they try to replicate in pretend play!

Representational Thinking: 24 Months

By 24 months your child will start to engage in pretend play with “representational thinking,” which really just means that they will use one object and pretend it is another.

That might be:

  • picking up a toy car and talking into it like a phone
  • pretending that an empty bin is a pan they can cook in

This is also the age at which children start engaging more with dolls and playing “house,” interacting with their dolls as if they were real babies and acting as their parents.

This kind of role-playing pretend play is critical for social-emotional development as they strive to understand the social roles of family members.

It’s also so sweet, and fun to play along with!

Fully Engaged Pretend Play: 3 Years

By the time of your child’s third birthday, they’ll be fully engaged with the full spectrum of pretend play.

They might throw a tea party for their stuffed animals, assign family roles to their playmates while playing house, or create their own props for newly imagined pretend scenarios.

While children will still tend to gravitate towards familiar settings or social roles, they’ll also start to create and imagine increasingly fantastic pretend play settings, such as the setting of their favorite movie or picture book.

This period of time is critical for a child’s language skills, as they transition into being able to communicate complex ideas and full sentences.

Pretend play is a great way for them to practice communicating nuanced thoughts and participating in full, complex conversations with others.

How Can I Encourage Pretend Play?

If your child is resistant to participating in pretend play, there are a few easy ways to encourage them.

The first is to offer them pretend play materials that follow their interests and offer opportunities for them to imagine and create.

If your little one is most interested in animals and zoos, starting them off with some animal-themed dress up might catch on a lot better than a kitchen set.

While having a diverse array of materials is important to help them grow, getting them started with something already tied to their interests can spark their interest and lead them down the road to pretend play.

What Toys Should I Give My Child for Pretend Play?

When shopping for pretend play, there’s simply no wrong answer.

Any everyday object that’s safe and appropriate for your child to be playing with can be a pretend play toy!

Old cell phones, clothing, blankets, books, magazines, kitchen utensils, and household linens can make for incredible pretend play toys.

What Dress Up Materials Should My Child Have? 

Offering a variety of dress-up options is great for providing materials for a variety of social scenarios.

Professional costumes, like a firefighter’s uniform, a chef’s hat, and a postal worker’s bag, are great for learning about communities and careers.

Offering fantastical elements like knight’s armor, princess tiaras, and dragon costumes can spark deeper imagination and creativity from kids.


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