Understanding pretend play – your child’s occupation

[12 months +]  So what does pretend play really involve?

Thanks to Karen Stagnitti, an occupational therapist and expert on pretend play, here is a summary of the different components she counts as ‘pretend play’ and a rough guide as to when it might develop with your little one.  (Yes, this is a summary – learning about pretend play can be quite involved!).

Play themes – initially, your child will play with actions they have seen at home, everyday, such as having a drink or bath.  Towards two years, your child will start to introduce play themes such as shopping or cooking as experiences they have encountered, but not ones they have seen everyday.  Around two-and-a-half, your child will start to want to play with themes that are less frequently experienced such as doctors or traveling on a plane.  By three, your child will include themes they have seen in books and on TV.  By three-and-a-half, themes that have never been experienced such as spaceships, fairies and pirates will also be popular. Around four years, a child will start to include ‘problems’ in their play, to be solved, such as teddy getting sick or doctor running out of bandages.

impromptu play in the kitchen

impromptu play in the kitchen

Sequences – initially, your little one will perform one play action alone, such as giving a teddy a drink.  They will progress to complex storylines, that may last for days.  As your child sequences more actions together, it is like they are creating stories in their minds, showing where your child’s language development is at.  By two years of age, your child might be able to perform simple, logical play sequences such as feeding dolly and then putting to bed.  By two-and-a-half, this will be more detailed but not an actual storyline.  By three-and-a-half, a child will be thinking about what items they need for play and seeking them out, for example a bowl and spoon for cooking.  By four and five, children will be pre-planning a storyline.

using objects functionally

using objects functionally

Object substitution – initially, a child will use the object as it was meant, for example drinking from the cup themself.  By two years of age, your child should be able to go along with an item being used as another, such as a tissue for a blanket.  By two-and-a-half an object can take on several functions, for example a block as a car and then a phone or shops.  By three-and-a-half, children can pretend with actions or body parts, such as a finger for a toothbrush, pretending to push buttons for a cash register.  By four and five, a child’s flexibility of thought can allow for them to pretend even a teddy is a plane and they will use more language to support imaginary items.

feed monkey?

copying feeding monkey after my model

Social – At about 18 months, a child might imitate a pretend action, for example going to sleep and by two years, they will be able to imitate object substitution.  At two-and-a-half, a child may still play alongside other children and even imitate their play and even at three years, they may still not actually be interacting in play.  At four years of age, this is when language really assists cooperative play, including negotiating and planning.

later feeding monkey with no prompt

later feeding monkey with no prompt

Roles – Up until two, a child may only use actions seen previously.  By two, they may start imitating peers.  By two-and-a-half, a child may start to imitate someone else (usually a parent!).  Short role-playing may occur from three years of age up until four years of age, where a child may take on several roles during the play.  By five, a child will take on one role and stick with it.

and back to using objects functionally!

and back to using objects functionally!

Doll/teddy play – As above, around 18 months, a child will start to do simple play actions with a doll or teddy if given the chance, such as feeding them or putting them to sleep.  By two years, a child’s brain has developed enough to let the doll/teddy do things for itself, such as placing a cup next to the doll.  At three years, a child will be more interested in a doll’s house and by three-and-a-half, a child will will give the doll/teddy characteristics, such as ‘dolly is sad’.  By four, the doll will have it’s own characteristics and life.

As you can see there are several points a parent can take out of learning about the aspects of pretend play, a child’s occupation :

  • provide materials appropriate for your child’s play skills
  • even if you have a son, give them the opportunity to play with a doll or a teddy and a doll’s house.  You can obviously also use animal or people figurines.
  • give your child TIME to play.  They will most likely need to be at home for a period of time for them to get into it, and with some materials and encouragement. (Master 18 months in the photos wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play if I had packed the bowls away instead of providing spoons and modelling a few actions).
  • up until three years of age, a child will be getting a lot of play ideas from YOUR model, so get down and play!
  • if your child is only using one play action, then show them a logical second action.  If they are doing two actions, for example putting the farmer in the tractor, then driving it, model him driving home or off to the shops.
  • don’t forget about abstract materials that can be used for object substitution.  Look around your house one day to find some items – eg. odd blocks, felt, shells, tissue, old washer, pipe cleaners… Think about Kara’s ‘Heuristic Play’ post…
  • always be talking to your child about new experiences, especially at the time (for example, while you are at the doctor or at the cash register at the supermarket) and then pretend again soon after, at home.

Happy playing! 🙂 I raise my kids is on facebook too.

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About heidelightful

Hello friend! I am a paediatric speech pathologist and health coach. My vision is to create a world where parents can understand the real link between diet and their child's health and behaviour, and know how to create true health for their family. My two young, wonderful and sensitive sons both have food intolerances and have also taught me about my own, that I have never known about until now! Topics I have looked into for my own family's health and also from my role as a speech pathologist with children with picky eating are food intolerances, fussy eaters, creating healthy eaters and eating to prevent and ‘cure’ childhood issues such as ADHD, autism, eczema/skin issues, trouble sleeping, low immunity, frequent snot/ear infections and bedwetting, to name a few. I write many posts coming from being an exhausted mum trying to keep up with fussy boys who can only eat certain foods and also as a professional who has worked with other children with similar issues. I live on the Sunshine Coast in Australia with my husband and two boys and was previously an exchange student in Brazil! I hope to inspire you to help your child achieve their potential through health and well-being. Thanks for stopping by :) Heidi

2 thoughts on “Understanding pretend play – your child’s occupation

  1. Pingback: Shut UPPPP!! | i raise my kids

  2. Pingback: The great toy list : 2 years+ | i raise my kids

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