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Pretend Play: Build Imagination, Creativity, and Self-Expression

Support children's learning and development through dramatic play.

Pretend Play: Build Imagination, Creativity, and Self-Expression

How to Use Pretend Play to Build Imagination, Creativity, and Self-Expression

When children play make-believe, the sky is the limit for what scenarios they’ll create. This type of play, called pretend play, is not only fun, but it’s also an important part of their learning and development. As children perform fantasy play, they unlock neural pathways, testing the boundaries of their imagination and learning about the world and themselves. Dramatic play can also help children to connect with their peers and teachers on a deeper level. 

There are plenty of benefits to pretend play. This blog will cover what pretend play is, why it’s important, and how you can incorporate it into your classroom or childcare center.

A multi-ethnic group of young children are playing dress up together and are wearing costumes.


What is pretend play?

Pretend play is a type of play where children use their imagination to play different, made-up roles. Also called dramatic play or fantasy play, this activity covers a wide range of make-believe that children can participate in. From dressing up and pretending to be pirates to creating scenery out of boxes or other household items and imagining that they are in a far-off land, there is an endless possibility of scenarios that children can come up with.

Children start to use their imagination from the time they are infants. As they grow, it gets bigger and more creative. And, because young children respond well to play-based learning, pretend play is a great way for children to actualize the things they’re learning about.

Why is pretend play important? 

Pretend play is important because it not only helps children learn and understand all the things they interact with, but it also helps to foster a child’s inherent creativity and curiosity. This activity helps them cope with and understand their place in the world while also giving them the tools they need to set the foundation for a variety of developmental skills, like:

  • Language skills
  • Social and emotional skills
  • Cognitive skills 
  • Self-regulation skills

These foundational skills are important for their physical and psychological development and well-being. Once that foundation is set, children can start learning things in other, more tangible ways.

Another reason why pretend play is important is that it’s fun for children. Children learn best through various stages of play, and this activity is the perfect thing to encourage because it combines so many of the things that help children thrive.

Benefits of pretend play

Let’s dive deeper into some of the main benefits of imaginative play and why they’re important for a child’s development.

Encourages imagination and creativity

Research has suggested that pretend play can enhance a child’s capacity for cognitive flexibility, which is linked to creativity. People need to use their imagination throughout their lives, so it’s important that children get in touch with it early in life. Children can practice using their imagination by getting absorbed into a game of make-believe.

Supports social and emotional development

When a child engages in imaginative play, they are practicing the social and emotional roles that life presents to all of us. During the activity, children can step into someone else's shoes and look at the world around them from their new point of view (as much as they can at this young age.) Because of that, they develop empathy and cooperation—especially if they are playing with their peers—and learn how to express their feelings and respond to other people’s emotions.

Improves language skills

During pretend play, children tend to experiment with and learn about the power language has and how it affects everyone. It can also help children understand that using words can help them get their point across, explain their feelings, and make themselves heard. Imaginative play empowers children to use their voices in a fun, positive way.

Encourages self-expression

Having a sense of self is important to foster in young children because it will help them become much more confident in the future. Pretend play allows children to be their most authentic selves and encourages self-expression by giving them the space to be loud, silly, and playful.

How to encourage pretend play

Luckily, encouraging pretend play is incredibly easy—you just need to provide children with a safe, healthy space to play and allow children to go forth and explore. Children are inherently curious and creative, and it’s never too early to start exploring imaginative play.

When they’re infants, perform your normal day-to-day actions so they can see you doing them. Then, as they approach their first birthday, you’ll likely notice them modeling your behavior back to you. Things like playing telephone, chatting with your infant, and singing songs can start this process. Once they become toddlers, they’ll build on that foundation with things they see other children doing.

As children get older and start attending childcare programs or school, they’ll start to notice everyone and everything they come in contact with and begin to model their behavior. They’ll play games as an ordinary mailman or a scary dinosaur, ultimately becoming catalysts for other characters and games.

Pretend play examples

Now that you know why pretend play is important, it’s time to learn how you can incorporate it into everyday life. Again, children will naturally want to engage in dramatic play, so they’ll only need a few things to get started. Here are a few tried-and-true (and fun!) examples of pretend play.

Reverse roles

Instead of you being the grown-up, encourage your child to be the grown-up, and you be the child they need to take care of. For this, play along to whatever they say (within reason!)


For this activity, allow the child to give the group superpowers and play out a mission where you’ll need to work together to save the world.

Doctor or vet visit

Ask your child to be the doctor who needs to perform a checkup on you or a stuffed animal. If you opt for a vet visit, be their assistant and bring more “patients” to the exam room.

If you want to give your children a world of possibilities, you can also:

Have a dedicated space for play and give them a prompt 

If you have the space, make sure that there’s a dedicated area for pretend play. It could be as big as an entire room or as small as an area rug, but make sure to create a somewhat contained space that can spark creativity and hold multiple possibilities. For this, you can give the children a prompt to build a city or pretend they’re on a desert island.

Create a prop and costume box

Don’t worry—you don’t have to go out and buy all new toys and costumes for this one. In fact, because you don’t need much to spark imaginative play, you can fill up your box with stuff you have lying around. Things like old scarves and hats can be thrown in so children can pretend to be fashion models. You can also include kitchen items like spatulas, pots, and aprons so they can pretend they’re a chef. Anything can be used for pretend play, so get creative.


Pretend play is so important for children's ongoing development and learning. It’s essential that you encourage them to engage in pretend play often so they’ll continue to learn, grow, and understand the world around them more fully.

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