Experience…  Imitate…  Recognize…  Connect… Pretend… Engage… Solve problems… Expand mental images… Create…

I see these as the developmental stages, and concurrent developmental benefits, of pretend play.  Although the progression is from younger to older, from simple to complex, they may occur at any age, and at differing levels for different subject matter.  Observation will help determine where your child’s stage may be, and the examples show good ways to help them benefit from that stage fully – which is necessary before they move to the next stage.

This is a brain storm that has been brewing in my head for weeks, esp. as I watched children expanding on pretend ideas in their costumes, and is finally drizzling its way out into words at midnight, and is somewhat based on research over time, and is somewhat limited to my own brain’s way of synthesizing things.  This is for PARENTS enjoying and supporting their child’s growing abilities.  It is NOT a precise summary based on specific research.   So please feel free to add, or correct, or comment.  I’d love to know your perspective. 

Experience:  The ability to interact with the original REAL OBJECT.

A young baby feels a real tree, and crunches the leaves with his feet and hands, while Mommy uses words to describe what is seen, heard, and felt, and sings a song about leaves.  “Autumn leaves are falling down, falling, falling, falling down…”   Mommy and baby will throw the leaves in the air and watch them fall.  These CONCRETE (REAL to the TOUCH) experiences are CRITICAL for a child to develop of BASE of knowledge, building a foundation of neural connections in the brain from which all continued development will come.  So, Parents, give your baby EVERY OPPORTUNITY to experience as much of what is REAL as possible.  Learning from books and video representations have their place, but nothing can replace the learning gained from touching and exploring what is REAL.

Imitate:  The ability to copy what another is doing.

A baby must first fully observe – carefully and repeatedly watch and listen, in order to create the same sound, or movement of another person.    Babies and great actors are masters at this.   A baby watches a leaf fall gently from a tree, then mommy raises her hand and pretends to let it float down, while saying “swishy-swish, ooooh.”  After watching MANY repetitions, a baby may start to imitate these sounds and actions.  They are trying to understand the world around them, and how it works – through another’s eyes, and through trying to recreate it. 

Recognize:   The ability to see something as something else.

At home, Mommy cuts up pieces of colorful paper, and lets them float down to her baby, singing the same song.  (We do this in the Village class!)   At first Baby imitates without understanding, but through repetition with both real and substitute objects, a baby begins to recognize that one object can substitute for another object.  This is the beginning of pretend play.   It is also the beginning of understanding language – how a word can mean an object or an action.

Connect:  The ability to see relationships between objects or ideas.

At some point, the child begins to see that the tree and the leaf belong together, even if they are not attached.   They may pick up a leaf and try to put it back on the tree, and may be confused why it won’t stay there.   They are happy to have a few torn pieces of colorful paper to “attach” to a tree trunk drawn on a piece of paper.  Then letting them all fall off, and starting again.  The brain THRIVES on making connections such as these, expanding and expanding on their knowledge based on concrete (real to the touch) experiences.

Mom can also start the process with an apple – fully experiencing a real apple, showing how it comes from a tree, and providing red circles to add to our pretend tree and leaves.   “Shake, shake the apple tree; apples red and juicy.  One for you… One for me.  Shake, shake the apple tree.”

Pretend:  The ability to create actions based on a mental image of something that is not currently present.

It is fascinating to see when imitations occur spontaneously – when an adult is not actively engaged.  They are starting to generate the mental image of when mom did it, and to imitate when their brain chooses to, rather than when someone else is encouraging them to.  I was so delighted when I saw my son pretending to sleep and snore for the first time.  I KNOW what a great leap this is in development. 

It is often fun to “BE” the object when this begins to occur.  At first, the mental image is just of the tree and a few objects connected to it.  The child loves to stand still and hold a ball in each hand, pretending to be the tree, and to have Dad “shake the tree” while singing, then pick up the apples, sharing one for each, and pretending to eat the apples.  Pretend play at this stage is based in reality, and involves props that can be held.

A few years ago, a wonderful mom was spurred by the emergence of her daughter’s ability to pretend, and who wanted to BE an APPLE TREE.  So mom designed a Tree Trunk costume for her to wear, with leaves and apples that were attached to the tree.   These kind of props lead to extended pretend play, and to further levels of pretend play.

There are LOTS of stages in this particular process, from these first stages of spontaneous imitation, to full mental images of a tree and the space in which it grows as well as objects and characters that are connected to it.  I won’t be presenting all the levels in order, but the following are extensions of pretend play.

Engage:  The ability to include others in creating abstract scenarios.

The first time a child offers Mom, or a doll, a spoonful of applesauce that is not actually on the spoon, the pretend play is expanding outside themselves.  Whoop !  Now you are in trouble – they want to play with you ALL the time.  Parents that take the time to let go of the rest of life for a few moments, and immerse themselves in this pretend play offer their child and themselves extensive benefits of expansion, cooperation, and connection.   The child recognizes their ideas are worth your time, and parents can lead the child into new levels of play. 

Parents can actually lead them into more independent play by expanding on the steps involved, and in developing more character roles.   Use their dolls and/or stuffed animals as friends they can be included in their play.  “Benny the giraffe can shake the apples on the top of the tree, while Sammy, the squirrel, gathers them, and Edda, the elephant helps squish the apples into applesauce.”  Don’t you wish you had that much help?  This may also help them identify the “properties” of the different characters, to recognize their strengths and how to use them wisely.  Eventually, a parent can encourage them to continue the play with their host of characters, take a bit of a break, then return later to see how the play is coming along.

Solve Problems:   The ability to mentally go through a series of solutions to come up with a suitable solution.

Siblings and friends are excellent companions for pretend play, and can help expand their perceptions of a scenario – perhaps they like oranges and orange juice better.  When peers are involved, opinions and feelings may differ, which offers the opportunity to cooperate and solve problems.  “I like apples, but Sally likes oranges.  What can we do to make this play work for everyone?”

Friends or parents, or the child themselves, may also bring up new ideas for play that require problem solving.  For example, pretending to climb up into the tree, “How are we going to get UP there?” – engage them in a conversation of possibilities and how they think each one would work.  Go outside and try a few.  Are the branches easy to reach?  Is it as easy to climb a rope as once thought?  What would make it easier?   These concrete experiences can later help them visualize these solutions and apply them to other situations.  

Of course, some of their solutions may be a bit fantastic and unrealistic, and mentally imagining all sorts of solutions is encouraged.  There are many things real now that were never considered an option before, and that is because the mental images for some folks expanded beyond what they could see as “realistic” solutions.

Expand mental imaging:  The ability to mentally SEE more of the scene of the object and/or idea.

Their abilities to expand their mental images can be enhance by adding new dimensions to the play, like pretending to climb a tree and explore what can be seen (or heard)  IN the tree, and AROUND the tree.  There is a great Kindermusik song for the preschoolers for this kind of play, “I like to climb up in my treehouse… to see what I can see.”   This is fun to do with several children, because they will learn from each other, and expand on each other’s ideas, and help each other solve problems,  “I SEE… a spider – I’m scared!  What should I do?”    Whereas,  “I SEE… a nest ” – opens up all kinds of conversations, and further mental images. 

Create:  The ability to use a variety of objects and/or ideas in creative ways to develop something unique.

When a child has built a strong foundation of understanding an object or idea in soooo many ways, they may then be able to synthesize all of their explorations into more complex scenarios, and sequenced story play.  A child may collect pretend (or real) materials to “build a treehouse”, invite his friends (real or stuffed) to play and explore, and to protect the nest of eggs until they are hatched and the little baby birds learn to fly.   An older child may actually take a branch from a real tree, design and build a “treehouse” in it, and use objects to represent herself and household objects while creating a variety of scenarios and stories of what it would be like to actually LIVE in a tree.

Children who have been surrounded by music and songs up to this point will often make up their own songs that relate to their pretend play.  Parents can invite and encourage this addition.  This is expanding their ability to create –words into sentences about their play, and to create a melody that matches the words and is pleasing to them.  It doesn’t have to be on pitch, or even make sense, just enjoy the wonder of their processing.


Isn’t the process fascinating ?!  Specialists in child development are probably going through this and thinking of all the things I left out.  As a matter of fact, after I wrote this, I looked up some better resources online and found an excellent article that gets into actual research and description about the stages of pretend play – Different stages of pretend play and how they relate to language development , very interesting and well written, but not necessarily consolidated succinctly for parents.

 I hope this overview of mine (certainly not original ideas, but maybe just the way it is presented) helps parents be able to easily see and recognize where their child IS in their PRETEND PLAY development, and how to interact with their child to help build their abilities at each stage. 

 I recommend regular scaffolding procedures (like we use in Kindermusik class), adapted to pretend play situations:

OBSERVE, using words to identify what is observed:  Watch your child to see evidence of pretend play (initiated on their own), and at what stage they may be.  Specifically describe what you see, and ask them to describe it if they can.  “That apple just fell off your tree, and you picked it up and tasted it to see how juicy it was.  Tell me more…”  

IMITATE:  With or without words, make the same motions as the child, bringing yourself into their world, accepting their world as an OK place to be.

ENHANCE:  Ask open ended questions to encourage their ability to come up with NEW ways to explore or play.  “What else can you see up in the tree?”  “Who else do you think might live in the tree?”   “An apple grows on a tree.  What else grows on a tree?  What can we do with that?”  After exploring some of their responses, then parents can make one or two more suggestions they hadn’t thought of yet, and expand on those ideas.  Next time you play, recognize if they bring up these new topics on their own.

ENJOY the process of pretend play as it develops in your child.  If you’d like ongoing ideas and songs to help in this process at each age and stage, get ideas from Kindermusik International, and/or get involved in a class (see website).  If you already are, YEA ! – you are taking steps everyday to make your child’s play as enriching as possible.  Kindermusik is NOT required to enhance your child’s development through music, but it SURE makes it  EASY and FUN !

Got questions?  Please ask.  

                Got a story?  Please tell. 

                             Beg to differ?  Let’s hear it.      

                                           I LOVE a good conversation !  Here or on FB.