You might think of pretend play involving games like building a fort or chasing monsters on the playground. But imaginative activities involve more than just fantasy, and even young babies can (and should!) be invited to participate.

The key is making the fun age appropriate. Long before your child graduates to pretending to be a firefighter or hosting tea parties, she’ll explore role playing in her earliest back-and-forth interactions with you. 

Here’s how to get the imaginative fun started at any age, and how your child (and you!) will benefit from doing so. 

What is pretend play?

Pretend or imaginative play is a type of play that lets children experiment with different roles. It can involve make-believe games or dressing up — anything from sailing on a cardboard ship, to cooking an imaginary meal, to putting on grown-up clothes and “going to work.” 

Toys like play food, action figures, vehicles or dress-up clothes can certainly foster pretend play. But they’re not a requirement — and in fact, using simple objects that don’t have defined purposes forces children to think more creatively. A bucket filled with leaves can be a cauldron of soup; a laundry basket can be an airplane; a pile of pillows can be a mountain.

What’s more, this kind of social exploration can start long before your little dreamer is capable of imagining herself as a teacher or a soccer star. Simply engaging in back-and-forth conversations with your baby offers a chance for infants to try out different social roles.  

What are the benefits of imaginative play?

It might not come as much surprise that pretend play fosters your child’s creativity and curiosity. And in fact, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Especially in toddlerhood and beyond, imaginative play is crucial for helping kids cultivate important life skills. 

Pretend play can:

  • Promote self-control skills. When pretending, players have to work together to agree on imaginary scenarios and decide who will play what role. That can sometimes generate frustrating feelings, and toddlers and preschoolers have to figure out how to cope. 
  • Build relationships. Creating a new world brings players closer together and helps them learn about each other. When parents get involved especially, it encourages give-and-take interactions that help to strengthen bonds. 
  • Teach about difficult feelings. Pretend play gives children a chance to explore and work through hard or scary situations, like visiting the doctor or starting daycare or preschool.
  • Encourage language and communication development. Coming up with scenarios and negotiating the rules means using more sophisticated words and ideas.  

When should I start encouraging pretend play with my child?

It’s never too early to invite your child to use her imagination. While playtime doesn’t involve typical make-believe games until later toddlerhood, young babies are ready to start exploring different social roles with you from birth, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). That can mean watching you smile or make faces or having back-and-forth conversations where you repeat or answer your baby’s sounds. 

How to encourage imaginative play for babies and toddlers

Let’s get ready to pretend! You can start helping your cutie flex her imagination muscles shortly after she’s born — and keep right on going through preschool and beyond. 

How to encourage pretend play: 0-24 months

Babies and younger toddlers might not yet have the capacity to imagine themselves as a dinosaur or doctor. But they can still participate in social play and practice taking on different roles.

Have rollicking conversations with your infant and invite her to explore different objects in her surroundings. As she reaches her first birthday, shift the focus to modeling the actions and behaviors she’ll learn as a toddler — like introducing herself to new people and sharing toys. 

  • Have a chat. Imitate the sounds that your baby makes, or talk with her and give her a chance to answer. She might respond by squealing, cooing, moving her arms or legs, and eventually smiling!
  • Encourage exploration. Give your baby age-appropriate objects in various sizes, colors and texture to safely explore. Infants who aren’t yet mobile can play on their tummies or in a seated position, while older babies can crawl or cruise over to different objects.
  • Sing action songs. Songs and rhymes like Patty-Cake, This Little Piggy, the Itsy Bitsy Spider and Pop! Goes the Weasel invite participation with their corresponding actions. Your baby will delight in watching you make the moves early on, and eventually, she’ll join in the fun. 
  • Be a model. Starting around 12 months, you can model the social behaviors you’d like your toddler to emulate. For instance, when meeting a new friend at the playground, you can introduce your toddler by saying, “Hi, I’m Parker. Want to play together?”
  • Take turns. Play turn-taking games with your young toddler to help her learn about sharing. Play with trucks and ask to switch vehicles partway through or take turns styling each other’s hair with a brush or comb, for instance.
  • Play telephone. Use a toy phone to “talk” to family members or friends and invite your toddler to do the same. (Don’t be surprised if you catch her talking on the phone on her own soon after!)

How to encourage pretend play: 2-3 years

By age 2, your child’s capacity for imaginative play is beginning to grow. But she can still use some guidance with getting started. Be ready to offer ideas, but once she gets interested, play along and let her take the lead! 

  • Offer dress-up clothes and props. Old hats, gloves, shirts or jackets are the perfect starting point for fantasy play for older toddlers. If there’s a mirror nearby, even better — your tot will love love seeing herself in her new outfit.
  • Practice new scenarios. Role-play upcoming events that your toddler might be unsure about or is having trouble with. For instance, play doctor to prepare for an upcoming checkup, or pretend you’re a friend at school that wants a toy your child is playing with.
  • Host a stuffed animal tea party. Set the stuffies up in a circle and invite your toddler to serve refreshments to you and her guests. 
  • Use objects in unexpected ways. Employ a hairbrush as a microphone, a pair of toilet paper rolls taped together as binoculars or a block as a slice of birthday cake — and see how the situation unfolds.
  • Have an animal dance party. Crank up your favorite tunes and get moving. But instead of dancing as yourselves, encourage your toddler to move like different animals.  

How to encourage pretend play: 3-5 years

Around her third birthday, get ready for your child to really start running the imagination play show. Now that her brain is developed enough to come up with make-believe stories, she’ll take off exploring new roles and scenarios with less prompting on your part. All you need to do is join in her world.

  • Play into the games. If your child says she’s flying when she’s jumping or that she’s stepping over lava that’s really just a red blanket, don’t correct her. Just follow along.
  • Reverse roles. Play house, but let your child be the parent while you be the kid. Don’t forget to go along with whatever the parent says (within reason, of course!).
  • Be chefs. Preschoolers can handle assisting with simple cooking tasks like pouring ingredients into a bowl, sprinkling cheese on a casserole, or using cookie cutters. Invite your child to help out in the kitchen and pretend the two of you are running a restaurant.
  • Vet visit. Invite your child to be the doctor who performs checkups on all of her stuffed animals. Be the assistant who brings new patients to the exam table or helps out with other tasks.
  • Mail carrier. Cut slits in shoeboxes and place them in different rooms of the house (or different areas outside). Give your child a bag filled with junk mail and encourage her to make deliveries.
Your child’s imagination will grow by leaps and bounds during her first few years of life, but pretend play is valuable at every age and stage. Start early by feeding your infant’s capacity for social play and make believe — and watch your efforts pay off in the years to come in the form of thorough checkup by your “doctor” or a tasty mud cake made with lots of love.