Playing Pretend

It's important for kids to play pretend because playing pretend is one of the key ways that young children develop social skill. (Seriously and you know how important social skills are, especially if you've read this) Another bonus of playing pretend is that this is one of the big predictors of creativity as an adult and if adults can use their creativity in the workplace, then they have a leg up on the competition. Innovation is big and not just at Apple.

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Playing pretend is definitely a skill that your child needs, but how do kids really start playing pretend? To play pretend, children create a play scenario then identifying and assigning character roles.To help your child learn how to organize a play scenario, you first start by introducing them to the roles (aka characters) that they'll be while playing pretend. Next help them "practice" (aka play) identifying and assigning roles in pretend play.

Introduce Roles

  • Identify characters
  • Talk about what the characters do
  • Give the characters unique voices

Storybook Example: Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Read Goldilocks and the Three Bears and as you read, act out the voices for each character. Give Papa Bear a deep growling voice to contrast with Mama Bear’s high-pitched voice. As you read, talk about what each of the characters is feeling and why the character has that emotion. An example dialogue is, “Papa Bear sure looks mad. Maybe he’s mad because his chair is broken. I feel mad when my stuff breaks, too.” As a child learns how each of the characters acts and sounds, they later be able to better portray the characters herself.

Real World Example: Going to the Doctor

Visiting the doctor’s office is a common occurrence for many children so the roles of doctor, nurse, and patient are pretty familiar. To help children learn the roles and doctor and patient (aside from real doctor visits) read stories about going to the doctor such as Mercer Mayer’s “Little Critter Doctor." While reading these stories, talk about connections between the story and real life experiences. You could say something like: “Little Critter is going to the doctor when he’s sick. Last week you went to the doctor because you were sick. The doctor will help little critter feel better just like your doctor made you feel better.”

Identify and Assign Roles

Storybook Example: Goldilocks and the Three Bears

After reading the story and introducing the Mama Bear, Papa Bear, Baby Bear, and Goldilocks; set up a play scenario for the story. This can be done by gathering materials that relate to the story such as three bowls and three chairs of varying sizes and three blankets for the pretend bear beds. Introduce the materials and explain their connection to the familiar Goldilocks story. Something you could say is: “I see three bowls just like in Goldilocks. We could use the bowls to play Goldilocks.” Next, identify and assign character roles with a dialogue such as, “Let’s play Goldilocks. Let’s be Mama Bear and Goldilocks. Do you want to be Mama Bear or Goldilocks?” (Child responds) “I can be Mama Bear and you be Goldilocks.”

Real World Example: Going to the Doctor

Using a toy doctor kit, introduce/explore the materials and make the connection between the materials and the recent doctor visit or storybook. Ask your child if they want to play the doctor or patient. After assigning agreed upon roles, play doctor and use common phrases that you'd hear at the doctor's office. Some of the phrases you can use while playing are 1) “Can I take your temperature?” 2) “Take a big breath” and 3) “Do you feel sick?”

Play skills are a big deal and not just on the playground. Click To Tweet


Psst! Want your free printable all about play skills? oh yeah!


Fung, W. & Cheng, R.W. Early Childhood Educ J (2017) 45: 35. doi:10.1007/s10643-015-0760-z Russ, S. W. (2016). Pretend play: Antecedent of adult creativity. New Directions For Child & Adolescent Development, (151), 21-32.

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