“Today, I’m going to be an astronaut! Or maybe a safari guide. Hmm, no…an ice cream man!”
Your preschooler loves to play. And as they grow, their imaginations really start to take off. They may inform you they’re now a dog, and will only answer to the name Woof Woof for the next four days.
Or they suddenly turn into a restauranteur, whipping you up delicious wooden dishes, and giggling each time you “eat” one (making the food disappear under your sleeve).
This is all fun, imaginative play. But what can you expect if your child isn’t quite to this stage yet?
Imaginative play at every age
Some may think that imaginative play only starts when a child starts talking in full sentences or maybe after they start school. But the truth is, a child’s imagination often starts to flourish and guide their play around their first birthday.
Imaginative play does look different, though, through each stage of development.
From 12-18 months, toddlers engage in self-pretend. This first stage of imaginative play involves the child pretending to do a singular action themselves. An example — your child pretends to eat soup out of a bowl or fakes sleeping in their bed (complete with an exaggerated fake snore).
Middle toddler months
From about 18 months until around the time a child turns two, they play pretend with realistic-looking objects like play food or cars. This can be as simple as racing two cars, or more complex play where they build an entire race competition. The cars may even talk to each other!
The ability to pretend objects have different purposes than originally intended is also emerging. Your toddler may pretend that their spoon is a helicopter and their bowl is the landing pad.
Toddlers at this age are also starting to mimic the behaviors they see adults and other children do. They may walk around the house, pretending to talk on the phone. Or they may pretend to cook dinner in their own play kitchen, just like they see you do every night.
From 24 to 30 months old, toddlers begin to string words and actions together. They can now act out whole routines with multiple steps, such as going to the grocery store.
This may include them making a list, getting in the car, loading all the items into their cart, and then checking out. Or maybe they give their pretend puppy a bath — first washing, then drying, and finally brushing their fur.
This understanding that some events follow a certain sequence shows great cognitive development. Their memory is hard at work as they act out all the steps involved in a process in the correct order.
Early preschool years
As a child gets closer to turning three years old, their ability to imagine scenarios is increasing. Your child might pretend to be a firefighter like daddy even though they’ve never gone to work and seen what he does. Or they might pretend to be a waiter at a restaurant they’ve only visited a few times. Their budding imagination can fill in all the details they haven’t actually experienced.
Preschoolers can pretend play with objects that aren’t there — like pretending to drink from an imaginary cup. And preschoolers are also more capable of pretending an object is something else entirely, regardless of its resemblance to the real thing. A block can be a police car. A stick can be a hairbrush. A ball can be a puppy.
Late preschool years
Somewhere between three and five years old, children begin adding imaginary themes and ideas to their pretend play. These stories often include characters like pirates, castles, and superheroes. Now imaginative play becomes more social, with friends often taking on different roles.
“You be the princess, and I’ll be the queen.” or “How about we’ll all be pirates? You can steer the wheel and I’ll hoist the sails!”
Less and less toys are needed as children use gestures, language, and vague objects to create the scene and props in their stories.
How to encourage imaginative play in your child
The most important ingredients for imaginative play are space and time. Stories take time to develop, and an actor needs adequate space to fully immerse in their role.
Your child is no different. They need space for their creativity to flow and time to think through all the things they want to pretend. Give your child time to play by themselves, with you, and with their friends. All three of these situations are important. And each will yield different opportunities for imaginative play. If need be, schedule a block of time in your child’s day that is devoted to unstructured play without interruptions.
4 tips for encouraging imaginative play
- Let your child take the lead when you play together. If your child is still young, you may need to help them get started. Pretend to play with one toy in a specific way. Maybe you use the spoon to take a pretend bite from the bowl. Then, put the object back and give your child space to mimic you. Just wait to see what happens next.
Your child may want you to do the action again so that they can copy you again. Children love to play copy-cat! Or they may begin using the object in their own new way, like using the spoon to mix up the pretend food.
- Put out fewer toys. This may seem counterintuitive (shouldn’t more toys equals more play ideas?). But give it a shot!
Many children feel overwhelmed when they have too many toy options. They end up bouncing from one toy to the next because they’re so excited to play with everything. And this short time with each toy may not allow enough time for the story to build.
- Provide toys that cater to their interests. Before your child is around three or four years old, the objects they like to pretend with often closely resemble the real thing. Think pretend food or a play car. Try to decipher what your child is interested in so that you can provide objects they love to pretend with.
Not sure about their interests? Take them to the library and see what sorts of books they choose. Maybe it’s bugs or outer space or princesses. Once you've figured out what they like, you can provide toys that cater to these interests.
- Choose open-ended toys and materials. Once your child starts preschool, they no longer need pretend objects to closely resemble the real thing. Try open-ended toys, like blocks, balls, and scarves, which can be used in so many more ways than a doctor’s kit or play kitchen.
Some other great materials for imaginative play include cardboard boxes (these can be anything from a spaceship to a garden) or an old camera to make their own movies. Dress-up clothes, whether from their closet, past Halloweens, or the local thrift store, can really help them get into character.
Then help them set the scene! Blankets and an indoor playset make for great forts and castles for their imaginative play. Puppets are also wonderful for acting out children’s stories.
Help your child learn through imaginative play
Your child’s imagination is the only limit in the stories they tell and experience. And really, their imagination has no limits at all. Imaginative play gives their creativity a chance to flow freely, and that is a beautiful thing.
Whatever brings them joy is exactly what they should pretend to be for today. And tomorrow they can pick anew. This is how kids learn and grow, and it’s amazing to witness. So sit back and enjoy the show!