Developing Pretend Play in Young Children

Nicola Smith, BOccThy

Play skills are a necessity for children. It is how they learn and make sense of the world around them. Children who have developmental delays can sometimes have delays in their play skills. Pretend play is a type of play skill that we see develop around 12-15 months of age. It is where a child can act out something and in that moment it is “real”. Common pretend play themes are tea parties, dress ups, superheroes, mums and dads, schools and shops.

A delay in pretend play skills can be due to several factors including difficulties with thinking skills, language skills, social skills and fine motor skills. Children who have trouble with thinking skills can have trouble coming up with ideas to play. Children who have difficulties with language may have trouble communicating with another player and telling them where the rocket ship is, so they can fly to the moon. Difficulties with social skills can see children who are unable to share ideas with others, or perhaps do not have the skills to enter play with others. Delays in fine motor skills can prevent a child from grasping items required for their game of tea parties or even dressing the baby.

It is important to understand how the child’s difficulties are preventing their play, so it can be best supported to further develop. One way to improve a child’s play is to engage in a dynamic style of play with them. Dynamic (meaning something characterised by constant change) play includes toys and items that have more than a single purpose and are “open-ended”. Lego, Duplo, blocks and simple constructional games such as a marble track are great open-ended toys. They can be used to construct things using instructions or imagination. They also can be pretend food for a picnic, used as a stencil when drawing or to make a miniature city.

Recycling house hold items also make useful dynamic toys. For example, a butter container or plastic cup can be a boat, a house or a rock for a playdoh snake to hide under. When children play dynamically they will be required to hold the item in one hand while the other hand either reaches, grabs or pinches something else. This helps to improve their fine motor skills and prepare them for tasks like handwriting.

Dynamic play that includes a child’s interest will often be the most engaging. Given it meets the child’s current skill set, then challenges them. Remember that children love to play, so why not join them to achieve?