A child is on the floor, on all fours, looks up at an adult with eager eyes, and barks. Mom responds, “I see that I have a new puppy in the house ! I heard your loud bark. I see your eager eyes. It looks like the puppy wants something.”   The child considers what a dog would want, and creates ways to express what the dog would want without using words.

Children LOVE to pretend to be animals. Even children younger than 18 months old are acute observers of the world, and begin to imitate what they see how others… or other ANIMALS… act . WATCH ! and when you see these imitations, let it develop into a learning experience.

“WHAT ?!?”  You may be saying.  Isn’t this just a phase they are going through that I should just ignore so it will go away?    Well, yes, it is a phase, and sometimes it can get annoying, especially when you have given this child an instruction, and they are running around barking and not paying attention, or crawling up on the back of the couch to perch, or when they start trying to eat their food like a dog at the table.  Yes, this comes from a mom experienced with a child persisting in being an animal.  I relate !

So I had to step back, consider the needs and desires of this child, so different than my first, and start from a place of LOVE.

Children go through “phases” for a reason, they are learning through these behaviors.  What they learn depends on their experiences during this “phase”.   Interactive parents can help children add so much to what the child gains from this pretend play.

OK, I LOVE that she is so creative and that she has a passion for animals.   How can I connect with this passion of hers, nurture her creativity, and guide these behaviors to enhance her development?  How can I handle these behaviors when innappropriate, and how can we tie them in to possibly become a part of our routine, so things actually get done.  I won’t be answering all these questions in this article, but it is where I start to get my head and heart in the right place.  Let’s continue the conversation in the comments.  What animal does your child enjoy pretending to be?  What questions do you have about approaching these animal behaviors?

Scaffolding with Animal Pretend Play

Once I fully learned about Scaffolding (one of the most effective teaching methods), I try to see how the basic steps of scaffolding will relate to a new situation:

  • Observe & Support  (Describe, imitate, encourage)
  • Expand (ask questions, teach new skills, research)
  • Allow time and materials for self expansion

OBSERVE FIRST, simply stop and watch what the child doing.  Sit on your hands and bite your tongue if you need to.   This is a wonderful way to gain insight to your unique child, what motivates them, what they think about, how they see the world.  It also provides an excellent baseline…. what do they already know about this specific animal… what behaviors of this animal do they already imitate?

GIVE THEM WORDS:  Specifically describe what the child is doing, with a focus on “I see you…” This not only encourages the child’s sense of self and confidence in their abilities, but it also helps increase their language skills and vocabulary, by giving them words for what they are doing and feeling.

IMITATE:  Although it might feel silly, get into it with them and imitate their actions – no words needed.  Most every child considers this the ultimate praise – to recognize them enough to copy them.  They are encouraged to try more things on their own.

ASK QUESTIONS:  Encourage them to expand on their ideas by asking questions, leading them to consider what else this animal would do. “It looks like the puppy wants to play. What shall we do today, puppy?”   “The puppy might NEED something now.  What do you NEED now puppy?”   They may need options of ideas “Food?  Water?  Hug?  Cuddles?” , but not neccessarily how to use their body to let you know.    These are open ended questions that help guides their imagination, and allows them to remain the creative “leader” of this playful activity.

BE a PART of the PLAY:   Play along as the puppy’s owner, asking what the puppy needs to be happy.   Continue to describe their actions, interpreting their “animal language”.   If they need some further encouragement, (some are too young to know the options, some are overwhelmed with the many options) ask simple choice questions, like “Is the puppy begging for a scratch behind the ear, or does he want his belly rubbed?” Or if there is time, “Would the puppy like to go for a walk, or play ball in the back yard?” Then when  it becomes easy for them to decide, it can become creative again once they get started that direction.

MODEL NEW BEHAVIORS:    Teach your puppy a new trick.  OR teach them how to use their body language to communicate something they can’t figure out on their own.

RESEARCH:  After a bit of open play, it may be wonderful to take this a step further and learn more about that type of animal, through active observation of your own pet (describing what they are doing) or reading a book, or watching videos featuring their favorite animal, or singing a song about that animal that includes the animal doing some of the typical things that animal does.

This will help them expand their knowledge of options for that animal, which will be fun to include during the next play session. Will they bring this new action into the play themselves? Or will you gently add that in through a choice question? During each new play session, WATCH to see what the child will ADD that is NEW for them. It is amazing how quickly they can learn so much about an animal they are interested in.

The NEXT time your child starts to pretend to be an animal, (and you have a bit of time), start over… Simply WATCH and see if their original play has changed.

If you simply cannot make the time, it’s OK, simply verbally recognize the animal that they are pretending to be and invite them to join you as that animal.   Reach down and scratch behind their ear, saying “My little kitty cat, let’s go get the clothes out of the dryer.”   Don’t be surprised if they curl up on the warm clean clothes and purr.

Benefits of Pretending to be an Animal

Through imitating animal movements, children are developing their gross motor skills and creative problem solving.  Through imitating animal sounds, children give their speech and language skills a work out, improving their articulation and creative sound making abilities.    This often leads to increasing their ability to communicate without using words, learning to use facial expressions and gestures to get their point across.  It is fun to watch and video tape, and keep around so that you can embarrass them in their teenage years…   and keep it in your memories for a lifetime.

Pretend Play develops over time through a specific set of steps, and according to the experiences that child has. One of my previous blog postings “A Parents Guide to the Stages of Pretend Play” goes through those stages specifically in a more formal way.

But today is a good day to just get in a few good ideas and enjoy animal play with your young child. My next few blogs will contain some fun SONGS and RESOURCES that are about specific animals, which you can USE in your fun play. PLEASE feel free to ADD your thoughts about books, songs, rhymes, and simple PLAY ideas for our young “animal” friends.


Make it Easy – Let’s Pretend and Learn Together in a Kindermusik program.

In the Fiddle Dee Dee semester of Kindermusik Our Time, we are fully exploring lots of animals, the ways they move, the sounds, they make, and the things they LIKE and DO.  We are in the midst of enjoying rhymes, songs, and stories encouraging interactive animal play.   If you’d like to visit a class in Lakeland or Winter Haven, check out the schedule from the tabs at the top of the page.  Or if living elsewhere, link over to KINDERMUSIK.COM to find a class near you.

If you are already part of MY Kindermusik class, or the class of another teacher… TELL ME…  which animals would YOU like to see the focus on in future blog postings.  My current schedule is to address DOGS, MICE, and PIGS – in that order.

I must end by sharing a story.  One of my best friends daughter, and her cousin, were enthralled with squirrels.  They pretended to be squirrels regularly throughout an entire YEAR !  With squirrel next “forts” in the living room, short tree climbing, and halloween costumes, they explored every aspect of being a squirrel.   They LEARNED so much about squirrels, and developed life skills and passions through their pursuit.

Which animal does YOUR child like to pretend to be?