imaginative-playOverview: Children love spending time in imaginative play. If you sit back and watch, you will notice your child go through stages of different types of pretend play which eventually leads to little social soap operas.

Welcome to the Learning Through Play Series where we are exploring everything you need to know about play. Be sure to check out the other posts in this series.

  1. The Importance of Play in Early Childhood: Why You Should Just Let Them Play
  2. The Importance of Sensory Play
  3. Play & Learn: Can You Really Do Them at the Same Time?
  4. 6 Stages of Play
  5. 7 Types of Play
  6. Imaginative Play: What You Need to Know

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A few weeks ago, Sicily came up to me and asked for her pink bus. This bus has been put away out of rotation for about 3 months now. I went down to pull it out, and I’m so glad I did.

Ever since I pulled that bus out, it’s all Sicily has been playing with. She uses her Mickey Mouse Little People and TOOB animals as the passengers. She has each one walk onto the bus, drives them around, and unloads them.

As each character walks off, they yell “Hi Mommy!” and I respond with “Hi Minnie!” (or whoever it is). They each walk around in a line for a few minutes then load back on the bus again only to repeat the same process over again for the next hour or so. (And they say toddlers don’t have attention spans!)

Here’s the kicker! Sicily has never been on a bus. She has very little knowledge of how a bus works. The only interaction she has with a bus is the one that stops in front of our house to drop off the little neighbor boy during the school year. Yet she is able to create this simple play experience and string together a few different ideas (loading, unloading, walking around) to make a story come to life.

Imaginative Play (or pretend play, fantasy play, dramatic play) is critical for young children to explore.

Benefits of Imaginative Play

Pretend play is not just for fun. All that pretending is actually building some pretty important skills that your child will need later in life like problem solving skills, language, emotional, and social skills.

Related: The Importance of Play: Why You Should Just Let Them Play

Problem Solving Skills

Even at the very beginning stages of pretend play, your child is developing problem solving skills. When they’re discovering new objects or trying to imitate a silly face, they are problem solving. They are asking themselves “How do I make this happen?”  or “What can I do with this?”

As their play evolves, they begin to work on problems like figuring out how to make something new happen or what to do when an object they need is not available.

Language Skills

A child uses a wood cookie as a plate.

Another child uses a banana as a phone.

And a third child uses a blue scarf as water for their pet.

This is symbolic thinking. Children use other objects to represent things that they need.

Language and math is all about symbols. Letters, words, and numbers represent ideas. Learning how to use another object as something completely different, is building an understanding of symbols, which naturally leads into the understanding of letters and numbers.

Related: Language Development

On top of understanding symbols, imaginative play increases vocabulary and communication skills.

Emotional Skills

Pretend play is a safe place for children. It’s a safe place to explore their world and challenge the norms. Imaginative play gives children an opportunity to explore their emotions in a safe environment. They can make other objects have different emotions and test different ways to handle those emotions.

Imaginative play helps children work out problems they experience in real life, but are too overwhelmed to deal with them in real life situations.

We all want our children to show empathy towards others, and pretend play is where they learn to be empathetic by experiencing life in other people’s shoes.

Social Skills

There is a whole process of the development of social skills through play.

Related: 6 Stages of Play

It’s important that children work through each stage of play to hone and develop their social skills. Children learn how to communicate, solve problems, negotiate, and be a leader through play.

Pretend play also allows children to test different personality traits and develop their own unique personality.

Stages of Imaginative Play

Just like the stages of social play, a child needs time to explore in each stage of imaginative play. Each stage builds on top of one another. The age ranges are average, so a child may move more quickly or slowly through each stage.

Self Play (Babies)

The first time your baby looks at you and makes the silly face back at you is the start of pretend play. Imitating others and acting out simple everyday experiences such as placing a phone to their ear and spoon to their mouth is all imaginative play.

Discover baskets are a great addition to baby play time. It gives them a chance to explore different everyday objects and begin to understand the use of each one.

Realistic Play (18 months-24 months)

Your child will now begin to create tiny, simple story experiences. Their play is directed towards others and toys. You might see them feeding a baby doll, covering a teddy bear, or driving a truck around. These experiences use realistic items and only have one dimension to them.


Come to Life (24-30 months)

Objects are starting to come to life. Your child can now take those one dimension experiences and begin to string them together. So instead of just feeding the baby, they may feed the baby, wash the baby, and put the baby to bed.

These experiences are usually based off of real life, and often times mimic what they see you do.

They begin their acting careers at this stage. Your child will climb into bed and pretend to sleep. They might sit in their car seat and pretend to drive, or they may pretend to be mommy taking care of the baby.

Children still mostly use real props, but may begin symbolizing with objects that look similar to the real thing. For example, they may use a banana as a phone.

Let the Outside World In (30-36 months)

Near the end of age 2, your child will begin letting the outside world into their play. They take on many roles throughout their play. In Sicily’s play experience above, she is the bus driver and each individual character on the bus.

Their fantasy play starts to become more complex and many more ideas are being strung together. However, they may not always be sequenced properly. They are trying to figure out how to string different ideas together to get the end result they desire.

So you might see your little one feed the baby, put them to bed then immediately take them out for a bath. This obviously is not the right sequence that they experience in real life. The end result is putting the baby to bed, but the order may get messed up because it’s a lot of steps to remember.

Imaginative Play

Symbolizing (36-42 months)

At this stage, children don’t need real props any more. They begin to use symbols (or other objects) to represent the things they need. So you might see your child use a blue scarf as water or a block as a baby bottle. Pompoms may become food and a wood cookie is a car.

Loose parts become prevalent in their play at this point. Boxes and sticks become their favorite play toys.

The play experiences become much more elaborate. Characters begin to take on their own personalities.

The entire play sequence becomes longer and more complex with a definite beginning and end. Children begin to close the gap between real and pretend at this stage.

Having a Plan (42-48 months)

Imaginative play begins to be sequenced through a plan. Children will plan it all out before acting upon the experience. Characters begin to have their own voice and will talk to each other now. There are a lot more characters in their play.

Children at this stage are beginning to manipulate reality and create new play experiences. They are able to take a real life experience and change it to meet their needs and play goals.

Drama (49-60 months)

Drama in this title takes on two meanings at this stage. First, their play becomes more of a social drama (or the old fashion soap operas if you will). Children like to play together at this stage.

Each child will take on a different role, but will have the same outcome goal. But working together could mean real drama, and a chance to practice negotiation.

The play sequences are highly organized and elaborate. At this point, children may begin to play without the use of props.

Imaginative Play

Imaginary Friends

Having an imaginary friend is a normal part of childhood and typically means the child is creative and social. They can show up at any time between the ages of 2 and 5.

Imaginary friends are a way to express themselves, practice problem solving skills, and add a new dimension to their play experiences.

Follow the child’s lead and become friends with their imaginary friend.

As with all types of play, a child will experience imaginary play, but the amount of time spent in this type of play depends on the child. Sicily loves fantasy play, and I use this to my advantage when planning activities around her interests.

I know small worlds and dramatic play set ups are an easier way for her to learn and explore new ideas, so I tend to plan more of these experiences.

It’s important to follow your child’s lead during pretend play. Don’t sit and narrate. Join in, but let them tell you what to do.

Related: 4 Aspects of the Adult’s Role in a Child Led Approach

Happy Playing!