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Benefits of imaginative and pretend play for a child’s development

Whether your child loves being a superhero or a doctor, a scary lion or a princess in a magical castle, there are endless benefits of playing in a world of make-believe. Here’s why imaginative play is so important for your child’s overall development, plus some great ways to get your kids to think outside the box.

By Tammy Jacks | Last updated Oct 11, 2021

child playing doctors with Barbie dolls

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What is imaginative or pretend play? 

Imaginative play or pretend play is essentially a form of make-believe where children get to dream big and imagine being whatever they wish, such as a doctor, mum or dad, superhero, mermaid, princess or firefighter. This type of play allows children to engage in role play in a safe environment and act out scenarios based on what they find fun and interesting.

Unlike active play, which involves swinging, running, riding a bicycle or participating in games, imaginative play is based on fantasy and has no boundaries or structure attached. It’s driven completely by creativity and fun as opposed to goals, results or rules.

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Why is creative and imaginative play important?

Pretending isn’t just child’s play. It turns out that it’s one of the best ways to help your child become a creative thinker and learn better. In fact, studies show that imaginative play is crucial to the cognitive, emotional, social and physical growth and development of young children.

Imaginative play helps children develop important problem-solving skills and make sense of the world around them. When they pretend to be a doctor, they process their anxiety about going to the doctor. When they play ‘teacher teacher,’ they give themselves permission to stand up and be heard. When they make-believe that they are a parent, they experiment with responsibility, authority and nurturing behaviour.

A recent study by a team of neuroscientists from Cardiff University shows that a simple activity of playing with dolls, like Barbie, allows children to develop empathy and social processing skills (even when playing by themselves), which are both necessary for learning and relationship building.

At what age does imaginative play begin? 

Children start to pretend play between the ages of 14 to 18 months and usually start by acting out everyday actions they see around them, such as talking on the phone, reading a book or brushing teeth.

Between the ages of 18 to 24 months, toddlers begin to enjoy playing pretend even more, which is when parents might want to introduce toys and props like dolls, dress-up clothes and toy cars.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“My DS is two and recently his pretend play has really taken off. When we go for a walk and pass a street sign, he always stops and pretends to be an ice-cream seller. We pretend to eat the ice-cream as well. He also likes being a pirate, footballer, fireman, hairdresser and a doctor. He has two imaginary friends: tiny pink dragons called Tommy and Harry who stay on his trampoline. Up until recently his pretend play was about cooking, making cups of tea and having teddy bear picnics.”

“My son likes me to pretend to be a bin lorry where he’s the bin. I lift him with my legs and toss him up and down, emptying the rubbish into the lorry. This is a great tummy and thigh exercise too!”

What are the stages of play development?

According to Pathways, a non-profit, child development foundation, there are six predominant stages of play development children go through as they grow and mature. These are:

1.  Unoccupied play: birth to three months

At this stage, babies discover how their body moves through a series of movements with their arms, legs, hands and feet. In the first few months, their main focus will be on you and family members as they learn to interact with people and objects.  

 2.  Solitary play: birth to two years

Your child will play alone at this stage but respond well to you and siblings. Play is predominantly movement-orientated and repetitive games like peek-a-boo are a hit.

Children are constantly learning about the world through their senses, as they look and listen to various sounds, as well as grasp objects and put everything into their mouths!

 3.  Spectator or onlooker behaviour: two years

At this stage, children start to watch others play, but don’t necessarily join in. Between 12 to 24 months, children also start to walk and begin to imitate actions and gestures made by familiar people. A growth spurt in language also means that children try to communicate with each other through various sounds.

4.  Parallel play: two plus years

At this stage, your child will enjoy playing alongside others and is on the cusp of learning to socialise and communicate, but it may not happen just yet.

5.  Associate play: three to four years

Interaction with others may start at this stage, with activities such as swinging together on the playground or climbing on the same piece of equipment, but your child might not feel confident enough to play with others for long periods of time.

6.  Cooperative play: four plus years

At this stage, your child will begin to socialise, interact and cooperate with others. Sharing, taking turns and following simple rules are also important concepts to grasp as this marks the beginning of social play with friends.

child at bedtime with Barbie doll

What are the benefits of pretend play? 

One of the best ways to enhance your child’s overall development is through imaginative play. As well as exploring and discovering new things, make-believe play helps children make decisions and develop self confidence, plus they learn how to cope with fears, anxieties and difficult emotions.

This type of play can also help children to:

1. Develop empathy and empathise with others

Pretend play or role play encourages children’s emotional and social development because they start to understand things from someone else’s perspective.

As the team of neuroscientists discovered in their study, playing with dolls activates brain regions that allow both boys and girls to develop empathy and social information processing skills, even when playing by themselves.

According to study author and lecturer, Dr Sarah Gerson, “This is a completely new finding. We use this area of the brain (the posterior superior temporal sulcus or pSTS) when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings. Dolls encourage children to create their own little imaginary worlds as opposed to, say, problem-solving or building games. They encourage children to think about other people and how they might interact with each other. The fact that we saw the pSTS to be active in our study shows that playing with dolls is helping them rehearse some of the social skills they will need in later life.”

What Mumsnet parents say:

“Our son has two dolls that he plays with. He looks after them, changes nappies, feeds them and takes them for walks. We even made him his own wrap so he could carry it like he gets carried. I think it's incredibly important in bringing up a well-rounded child.

He needs to learn to care and understand that men and women share this role equally. Now he has a baby brother, he is very caring of him, helps to change him and feed him just like his dolls. He has a play kitchen and helps ‘make meals’ with us in the evening.”

2. Communicate through play

Because speech takes time to develop, young children often find it difficult to express their emotions (good or bad) through words. The good news is that pretend play allows them to communicate effectively through games and activities, in a non-threatening way.

This is particularly useful in therapy where children have experienced trauma, gone through big changes or difficult situations where conflict resolution is needed. Role is an effective tool to help parents and caregivers understand how a child feels in any given situation.  

3. Become more creative

As children picture being a doctor or astronaut, they’re also being creative in their play, which helps to form a more complex picture or story in their mind. This also helps to develop intellectual skills as they organise their thoughts. Building a story around pretend play also improves focus and concentration, as well as problem-solving skills.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“Make up stories out of your own head and get your child to add in the details or encourage them to dress up and read a story with you.”

“Storytelling is good - my DD is learning to tell stories. She is five, but quite a particular child, so worries about doing the story 'wrong.’ You could write stories down for her and get her to draw the pictures.”

4. Learn skills, sequences and processes

Some forms of imaginative play like preparing, ‘cooking’ and serving meals in a toy kitchen using plastic food or setting the table for a doll tea party offer brilliant opportunities for children to learn about sequences and ordering. These are crucial skills that transfer into academic work such as reading, writing and maths later on.

Practising the morning or bedtime routine with dolls or stuffed toys will not only teach the concept of order and routine, it’ll also help your child feel safe and secure, knowing what to expect in the day or night.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“We got DS2 a toy kitchen when he was one-and-a-half. He has played with it loads and DS1 can often be found playing with it too - he’s nine. DS2 loves all kitchen things though.”

child playing with Barbie doll

How do you encourage imaginative play? 

Your child’s imagination is a powerful learning tool that can stimulate creative thinking. Here are a few ways to encourage your child to participate in different kinds of imaginative play.

1. Play with your child

While dressing up in make-believe clothing or pretending to be a fire-breathing dragon may not be your favourite thing to do, it’s important to play with your child often as joint games encourage communication, allow for creativity to flourish and will enhance your bond.

Given that children’s attention spans are generally limited - childhood development experts say a reasonable attention span to expect of a child is two to three minutes per year of their age - just a few minutes of pretend play is more than enough before moving on to the next activity. 

What Mumsnet parents say:

“My relationship with DS improves if we play together - it’s how he communicates with me. I obviously (being an adult) prefer talking but he prefers playing so if I want to connect with him, I play with him.”

“When I do play teachers, shopkeepers or mermaids, my DD absolutely loves it and I don't have to try too hard.”

“I think the key is to put time aside to do an activity together and don't worry about chores. We make a list of possible activities and choose something from that list which we go and do.”

2. Set the scene

Providing the right toys at the right time will undoubtedly keep your child engaged in imaginative play for longer. Whether at home or on a play date, just a few simple props will go a long way towards a fun, new and exciting world of play.

Some great items you might already have at home include empty containers, wooden spoons, an old tea set, blankets and cushions, handbags, hats, scarves, shirts and ties as well as child-friendly dress-up clothing such as tutus, fairy wings, fireman or cowboy hats, superhero outfits or princess dresses.  

Take it a step further and encourage your child to make their own props using crafty items such as cardboard, tissue paper or toilet paper, string or ribbon, bits of textured fabric, wool, tape etc.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“We take the dolls for a picnic or tea party or make a hut under the dining table and then islands on the floor with cushions.”

 “Find something you like to do as a family and set it up. Just start by pouring 'tea' making a play dough pizza or building a cool skyscraper from Lego and see where the next 20 minutes takes you!”

 “My DD likes to get toilet paper rolls and stick tissue paper on them and cut out flowers out of pretty paper to decorate it, and calls it Father Christmas or a submarine! It’s handy having a box of bits like glitter and scraps of card etc for this purpose.”

3. Encourage social play

Occupational therapist and author of Growing Up With a Smile, Liz Senior, says that at around age four or five, pretend play is usually shared with other children. Rules are made to support imaginary situations. Blocks, miniature cars, people, animals, doll houses and other props help children give meaning to their play which is directly related to real-life experiences.

Experts at Therapy Focus agree that imaginative play with friends provides an opportunity for kids to practice and develop their language and social skills by simply playing and talking together.

At this age, children also start to make up stories as they play together. “This is the beginning of symbolic or abstract thinking as they use body parts to add interest to play such as flapping arms to become a butterfly, bee or fairy. Children also start to imitate characters they see on TV,” says Liz.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“I loved playing with dolls as a child! I would use them to act out scenes from books like Secret Seven.”

“Sometimes my daughter is happy to act things out that extend from TV shows. Lots of pretending with sticks (she went through a stage of loving sticks), then making a campfire, then a house for a mouse, or a bird’s nest. Imaginative play always works better when we use something she likes as a base!”

“My DD loves dressing up, wearing my shoes and my lipstick.”

4. Be a role model

Children learn best about the world around them by imitating an adult’s behaviour, so it’s important to model the behaviour or the game you’d like your child to engage in. A good place to start is with everyday chores such as making the bed, dusting the furniture or packing toys away. Hygiene practices like brushing teeth, combing hair and getting dressed are also great ways for your child to pretend to be ‘all grown up.’

If your older child has just become a big brother or sister, use the opportunity to get the dolls out and let your child practice being a mum or dad too! Playing with dolls not only helps to develop empathy and social skills, it also encourages little ones to use their imaginations, gain a sense of responsibility and enhance their language skills. 

What Mumsnet parents say:

“My DD cuddles her doll, wraps her up, dances with her and brushes her teeth. It’s more like she's copying what we do with her actually.”

“My two-year-old loves playing with her dolls, changing their nappies, trying to dress them and buckle them into the pram etc. She also likes to play with tea sets and plays well in the home corner at the playgroup we go to.”

5. Use books and songs to encourage play

To spark your child’s imagination and creative thinking, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reading regularly to and with your child. Then, encourage pretend play based on these stories.

According to experts at Reading Eggs, the online reading platform, “Reading to children and encouraging them to read on their own, helps to stimulate imaginative play in powerful ways. By providing books that provoke children's sense of curiosity, fantasy and exploration, you can support and encourage imaginative play.”

It’s also a good idea to sing songs and play rhythms so that your child can learn and join in the fun. Begin to introduce some age-appropriate games to little ones under the age of four, like Simon Says.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“Not Now Bernard, Peebo, and I Took the Moon for a Walk are favourite books in this house. Peebo will last for ages. DD adores it (and particularly likes it if I narrate our day in the Peebo style) and it's got very detailed pictures that [children] can look at and try and name objects.”

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child playing with Barbie dolls

About Barbie

“Since 1959, Barbie has inspired girls to be anything. From princess to president, astronaut to zoologist, there isn’t a plastic ceiling Barbie hasn’t broken. Today, with over 200 careers and counting, she continues to inspire the limitless potential in every girl. Not only does Barbie allow children to explore their imagination, she also helps children to develop empathy and social skills. This is important now more than ever, when children are finding it difficult to socialise following a challenging year of lockdowns and isolations. 

We’ve always known that doll play has a positive impact on children, but up until now, we have not had neuroscientific data that demonstrates these benefits. The findings of this research highlight that playing with dolls, such as Barbie, offers positive benefits in preparing children for the future through nurturing social skills like empathy. As we continue to inspire the limitless potential in every child, we are proud to offer dolls that encourage these skills.”

What Mumsnet parents say about Barbie:

“My four-year-old is just starting to play with Barbies, however it’ll be a while until she’s really into them. We do watch Barbie on TV. Barbie is super clever and so kind. Happy for my DD to watch it.”

“Barbie can be a great feminist role model. In every film she solves a problem, has a different career and saves the day without a man's help. She's been a superhero, a secret agent, a sports star, a space traveller and a fantastic big sister!”

“As a child I adored Barbie and played with her for years. Was not remotely interested in playing with baby dolls or other toys. I just loved dressing her and ended up working in fashion for many years!”