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Feature Articles—Child Care


Preschool Children and Pretend Play

Amy Halliburton, Graduate Research Assistant, Human Development and Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia & Sara Gable, Ph.D., Human Development and Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia


Preschool children love to play, especially when their play activities involve "make-believe." This special type of play, known as "pretend play," is particularly important for young children's development. As children's thinking skills improve during the preschool years, they can create, remember, and tell stories that follow a sequence of events and make sense to others. Pretend play is a great way for children to learn and develop skills such as:


  • Planning, including organizing the type of pretend play (e.g., beach), roles (e.g., lifeguard, scuba diver, fisherman), and items/objects needed for the activity (e.g., whistle, goggles, flippers, fishing pole, beach towels)
  • How to solve problems and compromise (e.g., "This time I'll be the lifeguard who rescues you and next time you can rescue me.")
  • How to communicate through words and actions
  • How to express emotions (e.g., fear in the face of a child pretending to be a scary animal; delight (or jealousy) when a new baby comes home from the hospital
  • Creativity and imagination; pretend experiences get more complicated and fantastic as children get older (e.g., instead of simply being a fisherman, they become deep sea explorers, searching for lost treasures on a sunken ship)
  • Memory skills, as favorite experiences are acted out over and over again (e.g., getting a new pet, eating at a restaurant, taking a trip to the zoo)

Parents and teachers can promote children's development by creating an environment that supports pretend play. For example:


  • Create an area for children's pretend play and provide a variety of items, including purses, hats, shoes, clothing, telephones, kitchen materials, office supplies, junk mail, etc. Be sure to offer a storage area for pretend play items. For example, children can hang their "dress up" clothes on an old coat rack and store their other pretend play items in a laundry basket.
  • Encourage children to talk about their pretend play. Ask them to describe their pretend play to you: Who were they pretending to be? Why did they want to pretend they were that person? What did they get to do? However, don't interrupt children with questions about their play when they are deep into a pretend play experience. Their fantasy experience can easily be disrupted if they have to "shift gears" and talk to someone outside of their make-believe experience.
  • Engage in pretend play with children. Adults can enhance children's pretend play by offering suggestions for activities and introducing new words into children's vocabulary. Be sure to follow the child's lead. Let the child direct the fantasy play experience. Research indicates that children are more agreeable and can express their developing independence when adults follow the child's plan for the play. Examples of adult-child pretend play activities include having tea parties, bathing baby dolls, setting up a restaurant or beauty parlor, and being a librarian or mail carrier.
  • Attend to the theme of children's pretend play. Research shows that, compared to children who engage in little or no violent fantasy play, children who engage in noticeably more violent fantasy play tend to be angrier and less cooperative. Examples of violent pretend play activities include aggressive monsters who hurt people or cops and robbers who kill each other.



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Last update: Tuesday, August 25, 2009