Pretend Play Ideas & Games for Children

Everyday items offer children the opportunity to explore and grow. Learn easy pretend play experiences and fun games.

It is something we all experience: your child receives a gift and he is instantly drawn to the bag or box it came in, turning away from the sparkling new toy. Maybe you trudge to the playground and your child spends her time collecting pinecones, flower petals, and pebbles, instead of playing on the equipment. Or, perhaps your child is attracted to the pots and pans in your cabinet at home, yet ignores the plastic tea set in his pretend kitchen.

Have you ever wondered why this happens?

These materials have a few elements that add to their appeal. They are open-ended in purpose; they have a realistic weight and heft and feel substantial in a child’s hand; they are the same materials that children see adults in their lives using; and, they are plentiful in the natural world. When children engage with these materials, their play becomes richer and more meaningful.

The Benefits of Pretend Play

The benefits of pretend play are endless. Children can be innovative by finding new uses for everyday items. As children begin to invent new uses for materials, they’re able to use imaginative play to see things that aren’t actually there. Building imagination allows them to create their own stories. Later, when they are learning history or geography, it allows them to imagine events and faraway places. Imagination also builds resilience. When we can think creatively, we can imagine our way out of difficult spots – we can imagine a better world. We can have hope and find solutions. Children can try on roles to see how it feels to do something outside of their comfort zone, or they may take roles they see every day and turn them into their own. In addition to being a teacher, chef, or dad, they will probably turn into a bridge builder or adventurer of some sort. They learn to negotiate differences and come to compromise. All of this learning is naturally embedded in meaningful and purposeful activity.

Pretend Play Experiences for Children

When pondering how to capture your child’s attention and boost innovation with a new experiences, try these pretend play activities:

  • Provide “loose parts” in combination with some of your child’s toys. Fabric scraps, for example, turn into clothes, blankets, or homes for stuffed animals. Empty spools of thread transform into food to accompany an impromptu picnic.
  • Bring along baskets with handles or a canvas bag next time you go outside or take a walk, so your child can collect items of interest along the way. Allow these to come home with you and add them to the toy shelf in an appealing container. Children may pull these out to use when building with blocks or playing with dolls, or on the spur of the moment to improvise for a needed item.

  • When possible, allow your child to use non-plastic dishes in their imaginative play. The feel of “regular” dishes is more substantial. This may feel risky at first, and take some guidance on your part for success. Perhaps start with a time you both can play together, so you can model how to carry and hold the dishes, and together make a plan for how the dishes are stored. There may be an occasional broken dish, but children quickly learn to appreciate and care for real items.

  • Engage your child in real-life clean up tasks. Set aside a broom and dustpan just for his use. Real-life, smaller sized brooms are available at most stores. These are just the right size for young children. Real gardening shovels make it easier to dig through dirt and sand than a flimsy plastic toy.

  • Compile a collection of small boxes of all different sizes and shapes. Allow your child to explore with these to see how they use them.

The value of allowing children to use real materials rather than replicas has a long history. Before children played with commercially created items, they used what was around their homes or collected items to re-purpose into a variety of play items. The value of these experiences, and the importance of pretend play, has not diminished over time.

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Written by: Bright Horizons Education Team

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Whether you’re looking for parenting advice, or trying to figure out how to bring learning from the classroom to the family room, let Bright Horizons early education experts be your trusted, knowledgeable resource. Get our weekly newsletter for all things early child development—from the benefits of pretend play to at-home STEM activities, and teaching kindness—along with encouragement for every stage of your parenting journey.