A baby’s eyes search for the source of a new crumpling sound… is it dried leaves, or paper used for pretend leaf play?

A two year old learns that horses walk, trot, and gallop and can move these different ways with her body, as well as make these different sounds on wood blocks.

A four year old dresses up as a bird, builds a nest, and follows the music of “Birdland” to act out they many things his bird may do in a day, hovering, swooping, hopping, eating bugs, and nesting with his family.

A five year old moves her feet with quick steady beats as an alarm clock, and slow steady beats as a grandfather clock, acting out a story about magical clocks that helps her control her body to match the different steady beat of the music.

THESE are just a few of the activities we are enjoying in our Kindermusik programs in Lakeland this Fall.  We KNOW that imaginative play gives growing minds an active way to explore and process what they see in the world around them, and allows a child’s personality to blossom as they discover themselves and their place in this world. Isn’t it fascinating to watch your child’s imagination grow?  As a parent learns more about these developmental stages, they begin recognizing where their child is in the process

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

Although the progression of imaginative play is from younger to older, from simple to complex, these stages may occur at any age, and at differing levels for different subject matter.  Quietly observing your child will provide a glimpse into which child’s stages your child is experiencing.  We begin to wonder:  What can we do to help them benefit most from their pretend play?  And how can we encourage them to expand their play to reach new stages. Be aware, this list is how I see these developmental stages, and concurrent developmental benefits, of pretend play.  These ideas starting whirling around in my head back in 2010, 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 in my readings 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. GET REAL !    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. SHOW OFF !   In front of your baby, MOVE in many ways, TALK and SING expressively, and intentionally SHOW your baby what you want them to learn.   A baby must first fully observe – carefully and repeatedly watch and listen, in order to imitate it, creating the same sound, or movement of another person.    Babies (and great actors) are masters at this.   Dad encourages Baby to watch leaves falling gently from a tree, then dad raises his hand and pretends to let it float down, while vocalizing ” ooooh” from a high pitch to a low pitch.  Maybe dad raises the baby in the air, and pretends the baby is a leave floating and fluttering down to the ground.   After experiencing 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. DESCRIBE!    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 Babies class!)  Using the same words for a real object and a representative object helps Baby to recognize the similarities.    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. GET IN ON THE PLAY !     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 for even a few moments each day offer their child and themselves extensive benefits of expansion, cooperation, and connection.   The child recognizes their own ideas are worth that precious parent time, and this increases the connections

ASK QUESTIONS !    Parents can actually lead them into more independent play by expanding on the steps involved, and in developing more character roles.  Since it is so important to let the child lead this process. parents can use their secret tool…. asking questions that require more than a yes or no answer   Gather their favorite dolls, action figures and/or stuffed animals as friends they can be included in their play.  “Which character can shake the apples on the TOP of the tree?   Which character likes to gathers leaves into a pile?  How many ways do they like to explore that pile of leaves?  What shall we do with all these apples, make applesauce or apple juice?  Which character will help squish the apples into applesauce?” 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 several articles that gets into actual research and description about the stages of pretend play, mostly written for teachers, not necessarily consolidated succinctly for parents of very young children.

 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.

REVIEW:   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 nurturing your child’s pretend play, YAY ! – 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.

Each one of our Kindermusik Playdates features pretend play with a seasonal theme, offered once a month on a Saturday morning.  You and your family get new music, props or instruments, and a Sharing Sheet full of ideas and activities for your pretend play throughout the season.