How do I pretend to play with my toddler?

When kids pretend they're pirates or secret agents

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. Here are some key ways imaginative play is beneficial for kids.

The Benefits of Pretend Play for Kids

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 checkup, 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.

Some Tips About Pretend Play

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.

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.

Let them lead. When you pretend to 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 Playmobile 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.

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