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The Importance Of Pretend Play – Nurturing Creative Thinking In Toddlers And Preschoolers

Written by: Angela Mischkulnig, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Observing children being engaged in pretend play is fascinating. It may appear as simple child’s play but it is far more complex as it nurtures creativity and is a fundamental aspect of a child’s emotional, physical, social and cognitive development.

photo of two cute little girls playing inside the house

Pretend play involves the creation of an imaginary world where an object is representing another object and where children explore stepping into different roles. Pretend play usually emerges from around the age of one, initially involving simple actions like pretending to sleep. As children mature their play becomes more elaborate and creative, incorporating objects or people and encompassing sequences of pretend actions, often based on familiar themes. Over time their play expands exploring more unknown topics, using more imagination. Around the age of three, children begin to develop the ability to engage in pretend play involving fantasy themes and start to collaborate with other children where gestures, mime and language become essential tools for acting out different roles and scenarios.

University Professor Sandra Russ from Case Western Reserve University Ohio has been researching how pretend play is involved in child development since the 90s. In her article titled ‘Help your children play out a story and watch them become more creative’, already published in 2016 she shared her findings about the association between the amount and quality of imagination, story-telling skills and emotional expression shown by children in pretend play and creative thinking abilities. In an interview in 2022 titled ‘Can we help children develop creative potential through pretend play?’ she continues to emphasise the need for creative individuals for the future who can contribute to society through progress in science, engineering and the arts.

How can parents and caregivers encourage and support pretend play?

Parents and caregivers play a vital role in fostering pretend play, recognising that each child learns differently and may require varying levels of support in developing the skills needed for that type of play. All children benefit from quality time spent engaging in play, where caregivers actively participate.

To begin with, we can create an environment for children that encourages and facilitates spontaneous pretend play, like a small area in your home where children can freely explore their ideas. Provide familiar items that can be used in multiple ways. Blankets, pillows and empty cardboard boxes can spark a child’s creativity and cups, spoons, blocks, soft toys or toy cars enable them to act out familiar experiences. Depending on the child’s stage of play consider incorporating dress-up boxes filled with clothes, props, hats and fabrics encouraging them to explore ideas. However, be mindful of providing open-ended toys instead of structured toys and try not to overwhelm them with too many options.

Participate in the play without directing it, as it is an opportunity for interactions and conversations where you can support your children in expanding their vocabulary (for example by building on what they say). By modelling pretend play behaviours and encouraging engagement, caregivers also unconsciously teach children the art of pretending.

If a child struggles, try incorporating pretend play into familiar daily chores like involving them in cooking activities. Use appropriate language to verbalise pretend actions like suggesting to cook a meal for their favourite doll or stuffed animal.

New experiences can spark new play themes, like going to the grocery store or being invited to a birthday party. Additionally, books and reading to children provide a wealth of ideas that can be seamlessly integrated into pretend play scenarios.

Embrace the concept of boredom, as it serves as a catalyst for creativity. Learning to push through boredom is a crucial skill that builds resilience and persistence. When a child's mind becomes quiet, imagination is activated, opening the way for imaginative play.

Not just children benefit from pretend play. Embracing our imagination enables us to connect with children and learn more about their interests while supporting their symbolic and critical thinking skills.

For more information about how children learn through play and for clever designed open-end travel toys visit our website ‘The Wonderful Little Suitcase Company’ or connect with us on Instagram.

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Angela Mischkulnig, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Angela, Co-founder of 'The Wonderful Little Suitcase Company' is a skilled Australian-based designer with a background in pediatric speech therapy focusing on children with developmental disorders. Combining her knowledge of child development and parenting, she creates imaginative and sustainable toys that promote playful learning. In recognising the growing impact of digital technology on very young children, she is committed to offering engaging alternatives for busy caregivers. With a German B.A. in Design, an Austrian Speech Pathology degree with over a decade of experience working in Austria and Liechtenstein and additional studies at Stanford Center for Health Education, she applies her expertise to nurture children's natural curiosity.



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