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13 imaginative and pretend play ideas to try with your kids

Whether it’s an indoor fort made of cushions, a superhero cape fashioned from an old tea towel or the most immense doll picnic you ever did see, imaginative play can allow children to discover their own identities and make sense of the world around them. So here's all you need to know about imaginative play, including the benefits and some fun ideas to try at home.

By Laura Westerman | Last updated Feb 2, 2022

child holding four Barbie dolls

What are the benefits of imaginative play?

Imaginative play is important for a child’s development and has a whole host of learning benefits. As well as lowering anxiety and improving cognitive skills, imaginative play can enable a child to:

  • Identify with the adult world
  • Practice social, language and negotiation skills
  • Develop confidence and self-esteem
  • Learn to share and take turns
  • Develop empathy and connect with others
  • Improve concentration and focus
  • Express their personality and be creative
  • Show initiative
  • Activate the senses (visual, auditory etc)
  • Problem-solve
  • Think critically and logically
  • Come up with new ways of seeing and being

While there are different stages of play based on a child’s age and development, studies have found that, in general, imaginative play can enhance reading and writing activities, decrease disruptive behaviours and foster “an understanding that others can have different thoughts, views, feelings and beliefs.” Imaginative play can also begin for children at any time.

One important study by Barbie and neuroscientists at Cardiff University also shows that doll play in particular allows children to develop social processing skills like empathy. This, in turn, will enable them to understand different points of view, successfully resolve conflicts and build resilience.

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.”

child playing doctors with teddy bear

13 imaginative play ideas

Imaginative play comes in all shapes and sizes. Here are some examples of imaginative play and our favourite ideas to help bring your child’s creativity to life.

1. Doctors and patients

There’s nothing sweeter than watching a child learn to take care and be mindful of others, which is why doctor/patient role play is great for strengthening social skills.

While they won’t necessarily need lots of props for this, a medical trolley loaded with everything from a thermometer to a stethoscope may be useful for narrative development.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“DD loves her Barbies and plays with them for hours [...] She has a Doctor Barbie that she plays with a lot, so this year I've bought her the Barbie Ambulance.” Minister

2. Play at parents

Dolls in particular are very relatable for children and can be a great toy to weave into imaginative play.

Through mimicking a parent’s behaviour, children can learn to be empathetic and make sense of the world around them.

While dolls and pushchairs are what many children may be drawn to, teddies and other toys or objects can just as easily be used for this type of role play.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“DS loves a dolly buggy and I made a dolly carrier for him too.” PurpleCrazyHorse

3. Pretend DIY

Can they fix it? Yes, they can! Whether it’s building something from scratch or learning to paint, pretend DIY is ideal for developing a multitude of skills including problem-solving, concentration and creativity. 

You’ll also find specific DIY-related toys, including workbenches and tool boxes, to help make your child’s DIY dreams come true.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“We've got a [...] workbench. Seems indestructible and there's nothing in our house that hasn't been fixed.” PotteringAlong

4. Be an astronaut

Explore the different planets in our solar system and soar into outer space with some out-of-this-world astronaut play.

Whether it’s building a spaceship out of cardboard boxes, fashioning a spacesuit to rival Tim Peake’s or taking astronaut Barbie on a zero-gravity space mission, this educational and creative imaginative play idea will encourage your child to dream bigger than the Milky Way.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“DD wants to be an astronaut when she's older so she's got lots of NASA-themed bits.” thesearetherichesofthepoor

5. Have fun with a dollhouse

Design your own interior, make up stories and have guests over for the best pool party ever with a dollhouse such as the popular Barbie Dream House - the ultimate for encouraging imaginative play. 

As well as being an excellent way to develop empathy, doll play can also unleash a child’s creativity and encourage the development of vocabulary, organisational and fine motor skills. 

What Mumsnet parents say:

“My DD is almost six and has been asking for the [Barbie] Dream House every single day for about two years.” MondeoFan

6. Become a world-class scientist

Science knows no bounds, so whether it’s learning about the human body or conducting exciting experiments in their own chemistry lab, children can experience lots of benefits from science play.

We especially like that it’s a good STEM activity and promotes problem-solving skills as well as concentration and critical thinking.

7. Go to the shops

Another classic that nostalgically takes us back to our own childhoods, pretend play involving any sort of shop or supermarket is always a winner, especially when it comes to sparking creativity.

Household items and props come in very handy here. Or you could invest in a toy supermarket that comes with its very own shopping trolley and cash register for learning to count.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“My DC had both a toy kitchen and a toy shop. The toy shop was played with for a lot longer than the kitchen. It had a little till with plastic money and they did all the adding up and giving change etc... There was a scanner which made beeping noises. They also had a toy shopping trolley and basket.” Ricekrispie22

child playing restaurants with Barbie

8. Play dress up

Whether it’s a simple costume made out of bed sheets or your child enthusiastically raiding your wardrobe, playing dress-up is one of the most popular pretend play ideas for children of all ages.

Plus, if you’re a parent keen to get involved in the fun, take it from us – you’ll never get tired of those weekly dress-up parties.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“DD had a doctor's costume and bag when she was little that was played with endlessly.” shoppingbagsundereyes

9. Vet role play

If you have a little animal lover in your family, then it stands to reason that they’ll want to take care of all the animals that cross their path.

Great things can happen with a few animal toys and a small stethoscope, but you can also find a whole host of veterinary delights online including toy check-up sets (featuring an x-ray station) and vet dress-up gear.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“I would get [your DC] a dog/cat/rabbit cuddly toy, a doctor’s bag/set, stethoscope, self-sticking bandages (there are ones with paws on them), etc.” CovidNightmare

10. Enjoy an at-home sing-a-long

Who doesn’t love a bit of living room karaoke?

While the neighbours may find this grating over time, there are no holds barred when it comes to an at-home sing-a-long. Invest in a toy microphone to allow them to really embrace that pop star lifestyle and express their creativity.

11. Learn to cook

For young children eager to start cooking and baking, why not set them up with their very own toy kitchen?

Children love to copy their parents so giving them their own kitchen space nearby so that they can ‘help’ you prepare a delicious weekday meal may be just what they need. This may then lead to more imaginative kitchen play as time goes on. Pretend cooking can encourage key skills like problem-solving, creativity and counting.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“Ours really was one of our best buys. We built a mud kitchen so we had an outdoor version too.” VerbenaGirl

"Our house is basically an imagination land according to DC age three. I quite like it as it doesn't involve much. I just let her run with it and go along for the ride. We can be eating marshmallows in a café one minute and off on an adventure the next." OnNaturesCourse

12. Be the teacher

Good for language and writing, and for curious toddlers wondering what school is really like, playing teacher can help to get children excited about being in the classroom.

Imagination is all a child really needs for this, but a child-sized chalkboard and chalk could also be helpful.

13. Help out in the garden

If you have a little green-fingered child, a mini garden set or kids’ lawn mower could be the perfect toy to encourage some outdoor pretend play – good for both physical and emotional development.

What Mumsnet parents say:

“If you have a lawn, a toy lawn mower can be fun and quite physical.” MyNameIsInigoMontoya