Pretend Play, Oh No!

But What If You Don’t LIKE to Play Pretend With Your Preschooler?

Role-playing isn’t just a fun thing for your child to do. It’s actually a critical component of your child’s development.

For the most part, your kiddo can handle their role-playing on their own; after all, it is what preschoolers are designed to do!

But what about the times when your child wants you to join in? What if you find role-play with your preschooler boring? Difficult? Tear-your-hair-out tedious?

Read on for tips on how to role-play with your preschooler.

Why Role-Play Is So Important for Preschoolers

But first. Why does your preschooler even need to role-play?

Role-play boosts your child’s creativity and imagination, helps them learn how to problem solve, enhances communication skills, and so much more.

Let’s pretend (See what we did there?) that your child is playing store. They’ll likely act out scenes they’ve witnessed firsthand (exchanging of money, for example), while also adding their own bits of creativity (They’re the billionth customer, and they get to have all the candy in the store!). But then they realize that if they eat all that candy, they’ll get cavities. How can they solve this problem? Well, they’ll share the candy with all their friends, of course! Or they’ll come up with a magic spell that protects their teeth!

It may look like silly fun, but that one scenario helped your child develop in several areas. Your child “tried on” an adult role and practiced real-life scenarios. They brought in imagination, cooperation, and problem solving.

How to Role-Play with Your Preschooler

So what happens when your preschooler invites YOU in to the fantasy world? How can you play, especially if you lost your imagination when you lost your last baby tooth?

I am not very good at pretending, luckily my husband was. So any child in our home got plenty of pretend play and storytelling. Pretending isn't a skill that you can read about and know how to do it. The ability is a gift that your children will enjoy immensely. Parents are a child's first playmate. Therefore, it is important to make your child feel like you enjoy spending time with them.

Don’t fret. Don’t run away. This is something you can do. We promise. Read on for how.

Understand the Types of Role-Play

Children tend to pretend in three different ways:

  1. Occupational: This is the type of play where your child pretends to be, or interact with, familiar occupations. Teachers, doctors, firefighters, astronauts, cashiers, etc. are some roles that children like to play. (This play encourages empathy as children “try on” different roles.)

  2. Fantasy: Think superhero, fairy princess, giant trolls, unicorns, and more. This is the big imaginary world where everything is possible. Children focus on “good” and “bad,” often trying bravery on for size.

  3. Real-life: What happens in your child’s life? Do they go to amusement parks? Help you cook? Do they play soccer? Go to museums? In real-life play, your child will enact these real-life scenarios.

These types of role-play for preschoolers are flexible. A troll can easily stop at the store on her way home from work, and a firefighter can suddenly need to save the world from invading aliens. Children don’t live within bounds when they play pretend.

Now, why is it important for you to understand these types of play?

Well, if you struggle to play pretend, you can focus on one of these types that feels most comfortable for you. For many adults, real-life or occupational play will come more naturally. You might find it less daunting to be a cashier or doctor than to be a princess hunting dragons.

Go with what you feel comfortable with.

I enjoyed shopping for props, puppets and costumes. I even could play and set up Lego and Playmobil playsets for our own kingdom or countryside...and I be a dragon if I was holding one. I was lost without props. So give it a try. Stretch yourself as far as you can. But always seem happy to try. I used to pop up at the request to play and tell them that I would be...if they were... (whatever ever I didn't want to be). I did not want to be the dragon rider or dragon slayer or the main character. That way she could create and control where the fantasy or storyline went.

Follow Your Child’s Lead

Playing pretend with a preschooler feels overwhelming to lots of adults, because we think we have to come up with the scenarios. After all, that’s what two children will do when they play together: one pretends one thing and another adds to it, and back and forth.

But you don’t have to have that pressure!

  • When you get down to play with your child, simply follow their lead. If they tell you they are going to drive their cars on a ramp, say, “I’ll drive my cars on a ramp too.” Your child will let you know if that’s what they want you to do or not.

  • If you don’t know what to do, ask your child! “What should I do?” They’ll tell you!

  • Describe what your child is doing. “I see your toy horse is galloping on the play kitchen.” Your child will let you know if that’s right or not. They might say, “The horse is running away to the mountain! Hurry! Your horse needs to come too!”

  • Sit, watch, and reflect: Sometimes, you don’t need to join in. You can simply watch. When your child tells you they made a vegetable stew, reflect back. “I see you made a delicious vegetable stew!” They may invite you in, or they may be fine with you observing.

When you follow your child’s lead, you don’t have to think of imaginative scenarios. You simply follow along. The pressure is off of you, and the focus is on your child.

This gives your child freedom and connection.

Don’t Correct Them

When playing with your child, remember that it’s their world. If your child picks up a toy horse and calls it a dinosaur, don’t correct them. Just go with it. “Yes, that’s a ferocious dinosaur!” Your child might continue calling it a dinosaur, or may switch back to seeing it as a horse. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that your child is in charge of their own imagination.

Don’t tell them they’re playing with a toy wrong. They may put a phone to their foot instead of their ear. Don’t tell them that’s not how to use a phone. Just go with it!

This is your child’s special time. This is their world where they’re in charge. Don’t micromanage or take away their freedom in this special place.

Simply observe and follow.

Remember: your child is developing skills as they “try on” different roles, situations, and solutions. They simply can’t play wrong! And if you just follow their lead, neither can you!

  • Tag 1
  • Tag 2
  • Tag 3

Block title

This is a block description. To edit, click and type the text or replace it with your own custom content


March 25, 2018 by Sue Lively

Like most kids, my son has always loved imaginative pretend play. When he was a toddler, it started off with pretending that the large black ottomon in our living room was a train and we would take endless rides together.

Can you say “Choo-chooooo!?“


At the age of 6 now, he continually blows me away with his creativity and innovative thinking. I see it in his artwork, the stories he is constantly writing in Book Creator, and in his general thinking and ability to make connections outside the box.

I tend to attribute a lot of this creative ability to some great parenting advice I found when Onetime was little.

Today I’m sharing that advice in the form of 10 ways that you can help extend and enrich your child’s thinking through imaginative pretend play.

You don’t have to be an actor (or even a dramatic person) to use these tips – you just need a sense of fun, and maybe a little pinch of courage to step out of your adult role!


I once read somewhere that play is a child’s work and I couldn’t agree more. When he was younger, my son seemed to process his experiences through his play.

After a trip to the local fire station, our living room ottoman became a fire truck, “Honk-honk. Weeee-ooooooo!“

After a particularly scary ride in an ambulance after an allergic reaction to peanuts, the ottoman became an ambulance and paramedic headquarters for several weeks.

It’s also been a dump truck, a rocket ship, and both a helicopter and airplane. “Seat belts on Mama!“

Play Is Quote from Mr. Rogers

Children work out problems, try on different adult roles, and stretch their imagination to great lengths – all through play.

‘Make-believe strengthens a wide variety of mental abilities, including sustained attention, memory, logical reasoning, language and literacy skills, imagination, creativity, understanding emotions, and the ability to reflect on one’s thinking, inhibit impulses, control one’s own behavior, and take another’s perspective’ (Berk, 2009).


So if our kids already play naturally on their own, what are the benefits of joining them?

According to Lawrence Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, simply playing with your children, in the way that they want to play, can deeply enrich your connection and bond. After reading this book, I was convinced that I wanted to join in on my son’s play more often. And with lots of fun ideas to do that from the book, we began to play together regularly.

Lawrence-Cohen-Playing-Quote joyful


Eventually, what I realized through playing with my son, was that there were many benefits other than connection that emerged from our time together.

I noticed that through our play, I was able to:

Enrich my son’s vocabulary,

Challenge his thinking,

Build his confidence,

Help develop his empathy,

Improve his problem-solving skills, and

Help him make connections between his play and daily life.

My past experiences as a behavior therapist, teacher, and amateur community theatre actor, combined to help me enhance our play in these ways.

The benefits for my son of our play time together were obvious to me when he was little, and are still obvious now. Check out my tips below to see some of the things I did that you could try.



One of the easiest ways to enrich your child’s play, and one of the best ways to connect with your child, is to join them in their world.

Most kids will happily play pretend on their own, but are thrilled if you play with them. The trick is to follow their lead and allow them to control the play.

2. SAY “YES”

Accept any and all ideas that your child presents (unless it’s unsafe!).

In the world of theatre we say “Don’t block” another actor’s idea when improvising. Go with the flow. Always try to go along with your child’s suggestion.

Also try not to say, “No” or “That wouldn’t work.” Even if your child’s suggestion is silly or doesn’t make sense, try to find a way to use it somehow.

Remember – play doesn’t have to be realistic – it can be creative and nonsensical and silly!

Train Set Play


When you are playing with your child, allow them to be the leader.

You can take on the role of a helper or a subservient character. They love this chance to be the one in control.

Be the patient to her doctor, the sidekick to his explorer, the employee to her boss, the junior firefighter to his Fire Chief.

This will automatically get your child taking on leadership skills and thinking more creatively!


Sometimes kids get stuck in a rut when they’re playing pretend. They will act out the same scenario over and over again. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s just their way of processing an experience even deeper.

However, this is a great time to introduce a new element that may not have occurred to them.

For example, if you’re playing store – maybe the money could suddenly go missing. If you’re playing astronauts and you’re flying to space in your rocket-couch, maybe something could go wrong with the engine. If you’re playing choo-choo train, maybe you notice some bad weather approaching.

Get the idea? Remember to think outside of the box, and let your child take the lead on fixing the problem!

adult and child in tree fort


One of the bonuses of playing with your child is that you will have more information about the situations than your child, and you can add this into your play.

For example, when I started joining my son in his ambulance and paramedics play, I would make comments about different types of equipment or medical devices that we might use to help our stuffed animal patients.

I could model how to use a stethoscope and a thermometer. Or comment on our patients’ temperatures. I could tell my son that the doctors and nurses would now take care of our patients once we got them to the hospital and we could return to the ambulance.

Pretend Boat Play


As you’re playing, you can help “notice” visual things in your mutual pretend environment.

“Oh look – there’s a fish!“

Now the boys can reel the fish in. With a suggestion to paddle to the next fishing spot, they were happily imagining for another 5 minutes while fishing at a “new” spot!

Need other examples?

You can comment that the station is getting closer as you ride along on your train.

You can point out that the cookies are burning in the oven for the tea party.

You can point out a giant wave approaching your pirate ship!

All of these details will help your child picture their imaginary world even more clearly which will lead to more fun and deep thinking.

Pirate Onetime


When actors are improvising, it’s a big no-no to ask the other person questions because it can put them on the spot and then the improvisation can fail.

With kids, it’s best to not ask too many questions that pressure your child while you are playing.

With one exception.

Questions can be used positively as a way of letting your child know that you are following their lead.

For example, if there’s a problem that you both encounter while playing, you can easily turn to your child and say, “What do you think we should do?” or “Where should we go next?“

Both of these will help your child know that they’re in the lead and that you are willing to follow.


As an elementary teacher, I am famous for having the best costume tickle trunk around for my drama classes. Over the years I’ve collected countless costumes, hats, accessories, and fun props… from magic wands and mystical globes to a genie’s lamp and a bag of pirates’ gold.

Why do I do it? Because kids love dressing up!

But you don’t need an amazing collection to add props to your fun. The younger the child, the less help they need to boost their imaginations. Preschoolers are often quite happy with a hat and a small prop.

Visit your local party store or dollar store for simple toys and props that will enhance your child’s play. You can always make simple costume pieces too.

Pretend Cardboard Airplane

One of the best props for imaginative play is a large cardboard box.

We have made boxes into trains, planes, firetrucks, rocket ships, the CN Tower, carwashes, etc.

If you don’t have any boxes at home, check out the large moving boxes for sale at large hardware stores.


If your child shows they are interested in a certain topic through their play – find some books to read that go along with that topic. It’s almost guaranteed that your child will be more engaged with the reading, and they will learn more too.

Reading both fiction and non-fiction books will broaden your child’s understanding of the topic, while adding more juicy details to their pretend play the next time they come back to it!

When kids are learning new things from books you read together, you will get a window into their thinking as they spontaneously add details to their play that you know came from a story.


Police officers write tickets. Grocery store employees hand out receipts. Shoppers write lists. Fire fighters write reports. Astronauts write daily logs. Tea party hostesses send out invitations.

Introducing these kinds of activities add authenticity to playtime while encouraging literacy! All you need is paper and crayons or markers.

Writing Pretend Tickets

Police Officer Onetime busily writing tickets for speeding cars!

After providing my Police Officer son with a “Ticket Book” and a pen, he had written dozens of speeding and parking tickets for myself and my husband, as well as several innocent stuffed animal bystanders!

What a great way for him to connect meaning to writing. And he obviously had fun!



To show you how this might all look together, I’ve included an excerpt of a fire fighting play session with my 2.5 year old son Onetime that I tape recorded.

Our actual words are in italics and my notes are in brackets. Note: at this time, my son was still referring to himself by his first name, not I or me yet.


Onetime: Let’s play fire fighter Mama!

Me: Okay.

Onetime: Ding, ding, ding. There’s a fire!

Me: What should we do? (Passing responsibility over to my son to lead.)

Onetime: Onetime’s got my key. Someone is hiding in the house and it’s on fire!

Me: Where’s the fire? (Prompting him to think in more detail.)

Onetime: Down at Maple and Henry Streets. (Note: this was from one of our books that we had read!)

Me: Do we need to bring anything? (pause and no answer) I’ve got my smoke mask. (Giving extra information for our play.)

Onetime: Um-hum. Onetime’s got Onetime’s fire hat and I’ve got my smoke mask too. Honk-honk weeee-ooooo! (We jump on ottomon and pretend to race to fire.)

Me: Now what do we do? (By asking this question, I am showing him that he is in charge, and I am his helper.)

Onetime: Get out of the truck. (He runs to another room.)

Me: Hmmm. I think we forgot something.

Onetime: Um-huh. Fire hoses! (Runs back to truck to get them.)


Me: I hear someone calling for help. (Trying to enrich the play by presenting a problem to fix!)

Onetime: Onetime knock on the door. (He pretends to knock.) Let me come in. I a fire fighter. (No answer! LOL)

Me: I think we need to go in.

Onetime: Um-hum.

Me: What do we need to open the door? (Prompting him to recall something we read about earlier.)

Onetime: A axe. (We learned this in a Richard Scarry book.)

Me: Should we put something on first? (Said in a “thinking aloud” kind of way as if I was having trouble remembering.)

Onetime: Smoke masks and hat. (We pretend to put on hats and masks.)

Me: Okay – let’s go in! What do you see? I’ve got my flashlight. (Adding extra information that the house is dark to help set the scene.)

Onetime: Smoke – there’s a person! Let’s rescue them! Call for a ambulance.

Me: (dialing pretend phone) 9-1-1. This is Fire Fighter Mommy. I need an ambulance at 350 Maple and Henry Street for 1 person caught in a house fire. (I model an appropriate call to 9-1-1 and we pretend ambulance comes to take person away, and we get back in fire truck.)


Onetime: We at the fire station. We hang up our hoses to dry. (Read about this in one of our books.) We got a fire extinguisher over here. (short pause) There’s another fire Mama!

Me: I’m ready to go! (With an internal sigh! Repetition in play also helps kids process their understandings even deeper.)

Onetime: We put seatbelts on (Him reminding me as he has taken on the role of the “leading” fire fighter now. Perfect!)

Honk-honk weeeee-oooooo!

And here we go again! LOL!

Hope these tips will help you and your child or children have many fun and enriching days of imaginative play together.

Trust me – these will be the special times that you won’t forget years from now when your children are all grown up – and neither will they!

Ready, Set, Pretend: Ideas for Imaginative Play by Age Groups

man and child engaging in pretend play

Just imagine! A few kitchen chairs and clean bedsheets become a fortress deep in the Hundred Acre Wood. One wooden spoon is a microphone, and two more are drumsticks. A stack of old newspapers is a dragon egg of paper mâché waiting to happen. Oh, the possibilities!

Play is a part of evolutionary culture and an essential aspect of your child’s health and development. Play can prepare children for the complexity of everyday life, regulates the body’s response to stress, improves overall brain structure, and promotes a healthy drive for goals. Play and learning are inextricably linked as skills are honed in a fun, imaginative way.

But exactly what does “imaginative play” mean? What are you supposed to do? Will you need to buy certain toys and stock up on crafting materials? What if you only have one child? What if you live in a tiny apartment?

What if you haveno… imagination… ?

What is imaginative play?

Simply, it’s role play. It’s acting out various tasks and plots. It’s expressing positive and negative feelings, discovering choices, and experiencing the outcome of multiple decisions in a safe, controlled environment. Imaginative play is pretend play. Saving the princess, slaying the dragon, and camping under the living room stars are all age-old examples.

As defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), play “is an activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, and results in joyful discovery. Play is voluntary and often has no extrinsic goals; it is fun and often spontaneous.”

“Imaginative” play is different from “active” play. Active play relates to games of tag, swinging on swings, sliding down slides, and hiking through the woods. Imaginative play is make-believe and fantasy. It’s curiouser and curiouser because we can’t wake up the sleeping giant who sold my gold doubloons to a troll living under the stairs.

Psychologists may define imaginative play as, “the acting out of stories which involve multiple perspectives and the playful manipulation of ideas and emotions.”

It’s your child making sense of this world.

What are the benefits of imaginative play?

Creative, open-ended play with both peers and parents is how children learn to socially bond, respect others, communicate, and balance personal emotions with the emotions of others.

Play increases the bond between a parent and child, creating a safe, stable, and nurturing relationship. The cognitive, social, emotional, and language development that occurs builds a strong foundation for stress management and social-emotional resilience.

There are many benefits gained when a parent and child engage in healthy, imaginative play together. In addition to those mentioned above, imaginative play can:

  • lower anxiety

  • improve academic skills

  • decrease disruptive behaviors

  • increase understanding of literature

  • increase emotional competence

  • practice and acquire negotiation and sharing skills

  • express and explore feelings

  • exercise logical reasoning skills

  • improve concentration and focus


Get parenthood support for you and your baby's development

Our week by week newsletter covers both mom's and baby's development as you grow through each stage of the journey.

How can you encourage imaginative play?

Decide if your entire home is available, if specific areas are off-limits, or if only one room is designated for play space — though, one empty corner in a room is all a child really needs. If there isn’t an empty corner to use, go underneath the kitchen table. (Powerful things are revealed beneath a kitchen table!)

There’s no need to spend money on new toys for pretend play. A cardboard box can turn into a boat, a race car, a dollhouse, or a tunnel portal to another world — everything and anything you or your child can think of. Attach a sheet to the corner and drape the fabric out for a lean-to tent. Canopies and play tents add worlds of fun to imaginative play.

Put a box of dress-up clothes full of hats, scarves, bandannas, old dresses and suits, purses, wigs, gloves, and fake glasses underneath. Add another box full of random odds and ends, like Tupperware containers, plastic flowers, tea cups, an old cord phone, an empty paper towel roll, dolls, and stuffed animals. Make sure you can store these items safely.

Once a month, go through the box, take out a few items and replace them with something else. This will keep your child’s play exciting and inviting. Consider turning old, mismatched socks into puppets. If you stumble upon a pair of binoculars in the attic, toss them in.

Make sure all items are safe and age-appropriate for your child (and remember you will potentially have to listen to anything that creates sound many, many times).

Show interest in whatever your child does during this pretend-play time. Your reinforcement is vital to their self-acceptance and security in openly playing. Let your child run the show. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that learning thrives when children are given control of their actions.

If your child struggles to come up with ideas during play, print or write out various scenarios on small strips of paper, fold them up, and put them into a jar. Whenever your child needs to, they can reach into the jar and pull out an adventure.

If your child asks you to play, say, “Yes!” Try to play with your child every day, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. Arrange playdates with other children of similar age as often as you can. Using imagination with peers is just as important as with parents but provides other experiences.

One of the most important reasons to incorporate imaginative play into your child’s life is not to push intelligence and education, but to provide supportive, warm interactions and relationships. As a parent, you’ll get to observe your child’s budding interests and have a better understanding of how they communicate.

Ideas for imaginative play

Birth to 2 years

  • Imitate the sounds, the coos and ma-ma-mas, your baby makes. When you baby smiles, smile back. This reinforcement is play that reinforces social-emotional skills.

  • Read stories and sing aloud to your child. Use different voices and facial expressions. Incorporate different rhythms and help your little one put movement to the beat.

  • Put your baby in a carrier or wrap against your body as you vacuum, sing, and dance — maybe to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”?

  • Hold your baby in different positions to see the world from different perspectives, holding those tiny, little feet, and moving them as if they were pedaling a bicycle.

  • Play peekaboo. It’s a very important, brain-building game. Parents will enjoy seeing how the “now I see you, now I don’t” concept inspires countless little giggles of fun.

  • Show your baby bright, colorful objects in various shapes. Let your baby hold these objects, put the objects in their mouth, explore the objects. (First make sure the objects are safe for baby to play with!)

  • Hold a mirror in front of your baby’s face and let them see and explore facial expressions.

2 to 5 years of age

  • Take your child to interesting new places, like the park, zoo, supermarket, beach, and library, to expose different environments, characters, and scenarios and to explore and observe new backgrounds.

  • Go on a short walk. A 2012 study found that only 51 percentTrusted Source of parents take their children outside to walk or play each day, and some kindergarten classes have removed recess altogether.

  • On your outings, ask questions. Point out things like a little bug and ask your child what life it would be like if they were that bug. (Can you imagine being that small? Are we giants to that bug? Where will he go if it rains?) Point to a tree and ask your child what they would do if they lived in that tree. (Should it be hollow, so they can live inside? Does it need a ladder to get up to the higher branches, where they’d build a treehouse? What does the treehouse look like?)

  • Have a picnic or tea party. Invite stuffed animals, superhero figures, and siblings to attend.

  • Read to your child regularly. Later, ask your child to recount the story and then act it out. Pay attention to which character they decide to portray. This is where you’ll gain invaluable insight to your child’s inner emotions and outlook on the world around them.

  • Sing songs and play rhythms together. Find random objects around the house and create a musical band. An empty bucket and a wooden spoon are drums. Rubber bands stretched around an empty shoebox become a guitar. Fill an empty toilet paper roll with dry, uncooked rice and fill an empty can with pennies. Cover and seal off any openings and you have two shakers with two different sounds. What else can you add to your musical band?

  • Schedule playdates. Give the children various whimsical scenes and roles to act out. Have them put on a performance.

5 to 7 years of age

  • Open a restaurant. Let your child plan a menu and have them ask you for your order. Whether they create an imaginary five-course meal at the fanciest of eateries or tell you all about 10 disgusting smoothie flavors (banana sparkle pop tart smoothie), try it all. Ask for more. Ask if there are any specials being offered. This game provides hours of fun.

  • Build a city out of Legos or blocks.

  • Play school. Have your child bring out various stuffed animals, action figures, dolls, and ask your child to be the teacher.

  • Sing songs and read stories with your child. Mix it up to see if they are paying attention. Say, “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as paper!” Does your child correct you? Does your child join in, adding add another layer of silliness to the next nursery rhyme?

  • Be explorers. Go for walks outside. Beforehand, make a list of things to find. Along the way, cross each discovered item off the list. Collect unique leaves or rocks.

  • Turn a cardboard box into… anything. A car, a plane, a turtle shell, a house, a cave… let them decide and see what unfolds.

  • Write and illustrate a book together. It’s as easy as grabbing a handful of plain, white paper, folding the pages in half, and digging in.

  • Be scientists! Wear old, oversized, white button-down shirts and fake glasses. Nerd it up. There are many safe experiments with little to no clean-up. For example, make a lava lamp using an empty 2-liter soda bottle, some vegetable oil, food coloring, and fizzing tablets (like Alka-Seltzer). Or make play dough out of flour, salt, cream of tartar, oil, and water.


There are so many ways you and your child can come together for imaginative play. Enjoy every moment!

From peekaboo to cops and robbers (and when they are even older, from cosplay and extracurricular activities to college electives), you’ll have direct access to the inner world that is your child’s mind.

Discover the world from your child’s point of view, revel in the friendships realized as they interact with other peers, and build a reserve of memories to last a lifetime.

Last medically reviewed on April 26, 2020