What is Pretend Play and Why is it so Important?

Date Posted:21 October 2019 

What is Pretend Play and Why is it so Important? main image What is Pretend Play and Why is it so Important? image
Pretend play is amazing for young children to explore their imagination and learn valuable real-world skills - Keep reading to find out why you should encourage your child to engage in pretend play as much as possible.


We recognise that as parents it feels natural to have some anxiety about your child’s education and success. It’s completely understandable to want to push for academic excellence from as early as possible. At Piptree we’ve noticed this attitude from many parents and families, and think parents should be applauded for wanting the best for their children. However, we see it as our duty to do our best to help children and families enter prep and school with a full toolbox of skills – academic and otherwise.

In the past 10 years, we have noticed some subtle changes in the behaviour of adults, and especially among children. It’s not uncommon to see kids from ‘high-tech’ households struggle with fine motor skill movements because of the lack of experience in handling and manipulating physical objects. As early learning service providers, we are constantly evolving with society by balancing the amount of technological play against the amount of time spent on physical and pretend play.


The Relationship Between Physical Play and Pretend Play

Now moving onto our main focus – how is physical play related to pretend play, and what are the benefits of pretend play? A 2013 study concluded that when a child is able to recognise an object, they are able to begin forming an internal representation of the said object. A consistent takeaway among researchers is that if a child cannot recognise objects, they are less likely to engage in pretend play. We know from the works of early learning theorist Jean Piaget, that physical play is extremely important for children in their formative years. (For more information on physical play, read our thoughts on the subject by clicking the link!)

I want you to picture this scenario – imagine your little bub handling any old toy or household item. On the surface to us, it doesn’t seem like they’re doing much does it? I mean what grasp could a baby or toddler possibly have of an ordinary household object? Internally though, their brains are constantly downloading and storing away new information based on what they are seeing and feeling in their environment.

What we’ve discovered in the research is that it doesn’t really matter if they don’t necessarily know what something does. What’s important is the physicality of the action itself. Strong evidence says that the way babies move determines what they see, and what they see determines what they will learn.

Holding and looking at a physical object from multiple perspectives is absolutely critical to normal development in a child. Once these ‘pathways’ have been programmed, and children can recognise objects easily, the brain is then able to properly engage in pretend play.


Benefits of Pretend Play

Enhanced Language Development

When kids are engaging in pretend play, they are learning to verbally communicate what is happening in their imagination. By encouraging storytelling you are helping your child to develop their vocabulary and descriptive ability.


Pretend play is the best way to develop a child’s creativity. By letting them imagine themselves as different characters or in different scenarios they are learning how to harness their imagination to its full extent!

Social Skill Development

Children develop fundamental social skills such as listening and sharing when they engage in pretend play with others. It is a truly wonderful sight to see a group of kids all imagining themselves in the same scenario and working together as a team to work their way out of it. There may be some disagreements over who gets to be the knight and who gets to be the princess, but along the way, kids learn the nuances involved in accommodating others.

Planning and Organisation

In order to even begin engaging in pretend play, kids must exercise some level of planning and organising. By encouraging kids to use their toys and furniture in creative ways to plan out scenarios, you are giving them valuable life skills!


When kids are imagining themselves in different scenarios, they are creating their own world in which they are separate from their parents. This is important because it teaches the child how to entertain themselves. This will lead to them developing into more independent individuals as they grow.

Social Norms

Pretend play is an amazing way to prepare children for a variety of scenarios which they are likely to be exposed to as they grow. Role-playing is how a lot of children learn how to behave in the real world. As a parent, it’s worthwhile for you to set up a couple of scenarios for your child to experience and learn from. As an example, it would be easy to set up some chairs in rows so you can role-play the scenario of flying in a plane. By doing this you can enjoy some quality bonding time with your child while helping to develop their social skills at the same time.


What does the Research Say?

The research shows definitively that although children play often when technology is around, pretend play is engaged in at much lower rates. So that begs the question, what is going on in the mind of a child that is engaged in a video or a game on the tv or tablet?

In 2009, after conducting a study amongst children aged from 2 months to 2 years old, renowned professor at the University of Mary Washington, Daniel Dervin famously created the phrase,

“turn on the TV, switch off the baby.”

The findings of this study showed that children who simply had a tv in their rooms heard 770 fewer words from adults per hour. This was in 2009 – and we all know the leaps and bounds that have been made in technology since then. Now in 2019, we each have our own individual entertainment systems that even we as adults struggle to regulate our time on. Just think about the addictive nature of these devices and what kind of impact they could be having on the minds of our children.

While Dervin’s quote about switching off the baby is a slight exaggeration, there is supporting evidence from the American Academy of Paediatrics which strongly discourages parents from letting children under the age of 2 watch any tv at all. Furthermore, after the age of 2 it is still unknown whether exposure to media contributes to communication and social deficits. 

In conclusion, we believe that pretend play is the best thing for us to encourage our children to engage in as it facilitates skill development in every aspect of life. This is why we at Piptree have made the decision to prioritise educating parents and families so that you are armed with the knowledge that will help you to raise and care for our future generations. Remember,

Playing is Learning and Learning is Playing!


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  • Council on Communication and Media. (2011). Policy Statement: Media Use by Children Younger than 2 Years. American Academy of Pediatrics, 128(5), 1040-1045. (Link)
  • Dervin, D. (2013). Writing Childhood Today: The Impossible Task?. Journal Of Psychohistory, 40(4), 283-292. 
  • Lopa, J. (2015). 10 Benefits of Imaginary and Pretend Play. (Link)
  • Marcin, A. (2018). What are Piaget’s Stages of Development and how are they used? (Link
  • Smith, Hannah B. (2014). "The impact of digital and physical play on early childhood development". Rehabilitation, Human Resources and Communication Disorders Undergraduate Honors Theses. 24. (Link)
  • Smith, L. (2013). The Development of Embodied Cognition: Six Lessons from Babies. (Link)


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