Pretend Play in Toddlers – Stages, How to Encourage and Top Ideas

6 min read

Written by Smita Srivastava

Smita Srivastava

Pretend play in toddlers

“Look mommy, I am a doctor, let me give you an injection. Daddy, listen to me, I am teaching you! Vroom vroom vrooooom” If you have a toddler at home, you are sure to have heard something very similar to this. Your little one pretends to be someone and plays out the role in their own way. Pretend play in toddlers is very common and very entertaining.

Toddlers love to observe and imitate others around them. They pretend to be their parents, characters from their books, or even pretend as if their toys are real and alive. If you see a toddler talking to their toy or treating it like an ally in their game, do not panic. Pretend play in toddlers is perfectly normal.

In This Article

What is Pretend Play?

Pretend play is a form of play where toddlers use their imagination to give new life or meaning to the things around them. It is a form of symbolic play where the toddler will assign a new role, name, or character to an object around them, to make it a part of their play set-up.

For example –Toddlers may pretend a stick or a box is a race car and they can make car noises with their mouths and race the cars against one another, or simply get from one part of the house to another.

Is Pretend Play Good For Toddlers?

Pretend play is a very important phase of development in toddlers. It helps enhance their imagination, memory, communication, and social skills.

Pretend play is nothing but bringing imagination to life. Since there is no one right way to pretend play, toddlers can come up with endless ideas and just improvise as the play progresses. Pretend play kindles their imagination and makes them come up with new ideas every time.

What Are the Stages of Pretend Play?

kids playing with cardboard box

Your toddler’s pretend play will most likely go through the following stages:

Stage 1 – Enacting

This is the first stage where they will do something with toys or objects. You may notice your toddler hugging their soft toys or dolls like it is a real person. They will smile, hug and carry it along. They are pretending the doll or toy is real.

Stage 2 – Pretend Play With Objects

Next, they will progress to shift the focus away from themselves and toward the objects. At this stage, they will make their toys do activities, like their car speeding and jumping over cliffs, animals running or fighting, etc. Here they are pretending their toys are real and make them perform actions like in real life.

Stage 3 – Sequential Pretend Play

In the next stage, your toddler will perform all pretend actions in the right sequence. If they want to cook something, they will first gather all the items they need for their pretend play, set up the play space, and then start the game. They will wash, cut, clean and do everything they have observed an adult doing. Your toddler’s memory is improving and they can go from one step to another in a sequence.

Stage 4 – Role Play

In this stage, your little one will include others in their pretend play, will assign them a role, give instructions, and come up with an imaginary game.

For example, if you are sitting next to them when they are playing with a doctor set, they will pretend you are the patient and will start treating you. If your toddler has started talking, they may ask you questions like a doctor would, and expect you to answer like a patient would.

So, now they know they are pretending, they know you are pretending and they are able to not only assign two identities but also play along without confusing the roles or objects.

Stage 5 – Create Pretend Settings

They will scout around, find various objects they can use in their game, and give the objects a new identity. They will include other children in their pretend play and assign roles for each. In this stage, your child will communicate, wait for the others to play out their roles, and respond accordingly.

Benefits of Pretend Play in Toddlers

Benefits of pretend play in toddlers

Some of the benefits of pretend play in toddlers are:

  • Improves their imagination and creativity
  • Improves social, communication, and language skills
  • Learns to observe and replay the same actions
  • Develops empathy and understanding of others’ roles and responsibilities
  • Keeps them occupied for a long time without the use of any gadgets
  • When toddlers find objects and come up with roles, they become resourceful and independent
  • Improves problem-solving abilities

[Read : Speech And Language Development Milestones In Toddlers]

How to Encourage Pretend Play: 2-3 Years

You can encourage your 2-year-old to pretend play in the following ways:

  • Lead them by example by pretending to use their toys like real objects
  • Get down to their level and play face-to-face when you join in their pretend play
  • Provide limited toys that are in line with their interest
  • Switch the toys every few days and introduce them to new items
  • Do not try to guide them
  • Take turns to assign roles and come up with an imaginary scene

How to Encourage Pretend Play: 3-5 Years

As your child gets older, you can aid their pretend play in the following ways:

  • Do not interfere in their game and try to correct them
  • Go with the flow and accept their imaginary scenarios instead of teaching them the right way
  • Introduce new ideas
  • Expose them to new concepts and routines for them to get inspiration from
  • Join their game and follow their rules and instructions
  • Set up playdates to encourage your toddler to play with others
  • Take them to places where there are other children of their age group

[Read : 12 Useful Tips For Planning Playdates And Sleepovers]

Top 10 Pretend Play Ideas For Toddlers

Pretend play ideas for toddlers

At a loss for pretend play ideas? Try these out:

  1. Go on a picnic on your balcony or roof
  2. Set up an imaginary restaurant, cook meals, and serve customers
  3. Turn a cardboard box into a forest and fill it up with miniature animals
  4. Use building blocks to build a school or a supermarket
  5. Turn up the music, dress up, and throw a dance party
  6. Give your child a cloth and watch them copy your actions as you dust around the house
  7. Set up a classroom by sticking a chart on the wall for the board and arranging dolls or toys as students
  8. Don a hat and become a traffic policeman monitoring all the toy trucks and vehicles
  9. Throw random things from around the house into a box and set up a shop
  10. Pretend to be a gardener and water all the plants and clean up the garden

Learning through play is one of the most effective learning methods, and pretend play can help your toddler learn a lot. It can help them develop in multiple areas and make them more confident. Never suppress your little one’s imagination and creativity, it is the key to discovering their hidden talents.


1. How Do I Teach My Toddler Pretend Plays?

Lead by example. Pretend play with their toys and show them how they can use various items in different ways.

2. Is Pretend Play a Milestone in Your Toddler’s Cognitive Development?

Pretend play also known as symbolic play is an important milestone in your toddler’s cognitive development. Through pretend play, they learn to mimic actions they observe around them, differentiate between real and fake, and bring out their imaginations in actions.

3. At What Age Does Pretend Play Peak in Toddlers?

Pretend play peaks around 2-3 years of age, when a toddler learns to communicate, differentiate, and act out familiar routines.

Read Also: Simple, Creative Activities For Toddlers

Smita Srivastava, Bachelors (BA) in Mass Media and Mass Communication from Delhi University
Masters (MA) in Mass Media and Mass Communication from Kurukshetra University

With a background in Mass media and journalism, Smita comes with rich and vast experience in content creation, curation, and editing. As a mom of a baby girl, she is an excellent candidate for writing and editing parenting and pregnancy content. The content she writes and edits is influenced by her own journey through pregnancy and motherhood. When not writing- She can be found curled up with a book. Or, bingeing on Netflix.Read more.

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