Play is considered the primary occupation of children and is crucial for their physical, social and emotional development. Play comes in many different forms, including structured play, social play and pretend play.
Karen Stagnitti is an Australian Occupational Therapist who specialises in pretend play. She has authored Learn to Play: A practical program to develop a child’s imaginative play and created numerous play assessments to evaluate a child’s play skills.
The Learn to Play program focuses specifically on pretend or imaginative play and considers this to be ‘a complex cognitive skill which necessitates the integration of many skills as the child grows.’ (K. Stagnitti, 1998). This highlights that the development of pretend play skills forms a foundation for other cognitive, social, emotional and physical skills to develop as our children grow.
Pretend play develops in our little ones from the age of 12-18 months. Before this, children will engage mainly in sensory-motor play, where they learn to make sense of their body and the world. This is also known as ‘pre-imaginative play.’ It is essential that these skills are present for successful engagement in pretend play later on.
What Makes Up Pretend Play?
Several skills underpin pretend play.
These are the stories or topics we may see in a child’s pretend play. In the early stages, these will relate to their own body or things they have experienced in the home. As a child develops their play themes will expand beyond what they have experienced. For example, they may pretend they are in space!
Sequences of Imaginative Play Actions
This skill involves a child using logical and sequential thinking to organise their play. At a younger age, a child may only demonstrate 1-2 simple play actions that form a logical sequence. As they develop, we see multiple play actions within a child’s theme to tell a logical story.
This skill involves a child using an object and pretending it is something else. This skill doesn’t develop until 18-20 months, and children will only use similar-looking play objects. Children should expand on this and start using items that are not physically or functionally, similar to the actual item at approximately four years old.
This skill is foundational for a child’s communication and self-confidence in play. Children will begin to play parallel to another child at approximately 2 ½ years; however, they will not start to play in an associative way until three years.
This is a crucial part of a child’s social and emotional development. It helps them understand others’ roles in society and realise that others have thoughts and feelings different from their own. You may see this develop at a basic level from 2 ½ years. At three years old, a child should sustain independent role-play and use multiple roles spontaneously.
Doll or Teddy Play
This is an integral part of imaginative play as it requires the use of other play skills and develops the child’s cognitive skills of pretending and bringing something to life. From approximately 21 months, children will relate their imaginative play to the doll or teddy and their understanding of the doll or teddy as its character begins to develop further.
As you can see, pretend play is a complex task that involves cognitive, social, emotional and physical skills. Arguably, the essential part of a child’s successful engagement in pretend play is enjoyment! True play consists of the child’s ability to engage and their enjoyment of play. Without this, they are merely completing a task or chore. Enjoyment is a crucial part of a child’s play as it involves the emotional centres of the brain, which promotes neuroplastic change and development.
The wide range of skills involved in pretend play helps outline why it is essential for our children’s development. By supporting their social skills, emotional development, cognition and physical skills, we help them engage successfully in learning opportunities and social opportunities at home and in the community.