Pretend play, real learning

Pretend play changes throughout childhood. Here's what to expect and how to foster it.

Learning Stages

By Jody Sherman LeVos, Ph.D.

LeapFrog Math Expert

As the math development expert on LeapFrog’s Learning Team, Jody works on products across all platforms to teach math and science concepts in developmentally appropriate ways using research-based techniques. Before joining LeapFrog, she was a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, a researcher and instructor, and a math textbook author. She is a contributing author to The Encyclopedia on Early Childhood. She is also the proud mother of two LeapFrog-aged boys. She earned her doctorate in developmental science (specializing in mathematical and cognitive development) at the University of Alberta, in Canada.

“Wooosh!” he roared as he ran through the room, arms outstretched. My son’s feet may not leave the ground, but if you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s flying.

Pretend play is a universal phenomenon and is often thought of as a hallmark of childhood. But did you ever stop to think about how much skill building is going on as your child “flies” around the house, rides a broom “horse,” or puts on a puppet play with his friends?

There are many types of pretend play, and the structure and function of pretend play change throughout the early childhood years.


At around 18 months, toddlers develop the ability to create symbolic relations, such as pretending that a banana is a phone. Although this milestone might seem trivial, substituting one thing for something else requires some sophisticated thinking that’s a precursor for learning in many other domains. For example, both reading and mathematics require children to understand symbolic relations: children must accept that letters stand for sounds, numerals for quantities, and so on. When children pretend that a banana is a phone, they have to ignore many of the banana’s real attributes (that it’s food, that it’s yellow, that has a stem) to view it as a suitable phone. Very importantly, they need to realize that the banana is not a phone, but that it’s representing a phone.

Preschool & up

At some point during the preschool years, or sometimes earlier for children with older siblings, children begin to take on roles or play parts in sociodramatic play. As children take on roles, such as pretending to be a firefighter, or engage in elaborate fantasies with others, such as playing “pirates and princesses,” they become more aware of how others think and feel.

Sometimes sociodramatic play can lead to conflict. When it does, it’s a great opportunity for parents and caregivers to suggest that children negotiate or swap roles (e.g., “ok, now you be the mommy and I’ll be the baby”), take other’s perspectives, and communicate their own wishes.

Tips & activities

  • Stock a dress-up box. Collect clothes, hats, masks and accessories in a large box or chest. You can even make items together, such as a telescope from a toilet paper roll, a cape from a small sheet or baby blanket, and a mask from a paper plate. Encourage kids to dress up, put on shows, take on roles, and engage in sociodramatic play with siblings and friends.
  • Use symbols. Ask children to explore the house, finding everything that they can pretend is a car (or other item of your choice). What objects do they find? What do they all have in common? What happens when you suggest something that looks totally different from a car?
  • Start a narrative. Next time you schedule a play date, arrange for it to have a theme, such as pirates, explorers, superheroes, princesses or athletes. Encourage children to dress up and create props that will enhance the theme. You can use simple story prompts to get children started on some dramatic, such as: “Once upon a time, there was a very ticklish alligator and a cowardly fisherman...” and let them fill in the blanks.