What's my role?

Essential imaginative role play ideas to get them started.

Learning Stages


By Candace Lindemann

Children's Author & Education Consultant

Candace Lindemann is a published children’s writer and educational consultant. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can also find Candace blogging at http://NaturallyEducational.com. While Candace’s degrees prepared her for a career in education, she’s found that the best preparation for parenting is on-the-job training.

"Lie down so we can examine you! Let me check in your ears. Here, take two of these. The medicine will make you feel better!"

Whether playing doctor, setting up their figurines for dragon armies, dressing up to put on a play, baking pretend cookies in the little wooden kitchen, or going on a hunt for dinosaur fossils in our backyard, imaginative role play is an important part of our day.

Pretend play is essential to a young child's development and helps kids: 

  • Process the events of the day
  • Develop creative problem-solving skills
  • Acquire language skills
  • Learn to negotiate and compromise with pretend-play partners
  • Form a sense of self
  • Build self-esteem and confidence
  • Think abstractly

When a child picks up a stick and mentally transforms it into a magic wand that will turn the giant dragon into a harmless butterfly, a number of important things are happening in that child's brain. The child is holding two images in his mind, the actual stick and the imaginative possibility of the stick as a magic wand. He is showing creativity in solving the problem of the giant dragon and developing agency and confidence as he is the hero of his own story. As he exclaims to his friend, "Help me defeat the dragon! Here, take this wand," he is engaging with language and cooperating with others. If the other child says, "I don't want to be a wizard," and the two decide that the friend can be a butterfly catcher instead, they have practiced the important life skills of compromise and collaboration.

If kids initiate role play on their own, listen in. You can learn a lot about a preschooler's day—what he enjoyed, what is worrying him and how much he understands—that he might not be able to express to you directly.

You can easily encourage pretend play with preschoolers with a few simple props and prompts—in fact, most young kids just need some time and space to play, and you will soon see them engaged in imaginative role play. If you need a jump start, try these on for size.

Monkey see, monkey do

One of the most common forms of play among preschoolers is the imitation of parents. Who hasn't seen a child pretending to shave with dad in the morning or walking around with a "tool belt" to fix "broken" things around the house? My son loves to cook in his pretend kitchen—chocolate chip cookies or pancakes because that is what he sees Daddy making. This is also a great way to keep kids busy while you do chores around the house. We often give them a cup of water and a clean paint brush and ask them to paint the walls. Or a plastic tub with a rag, plastic dishes, and flatware allows them to do the dishes right alongside us. They will feel good about helping and being like Mom or Dad!

Superstar

Have lots of old costumes and props in an accessible bin (we use a collapsible laundry hamper) to inspire dress-up play. Of course, no matter how many scarves, old adult shirts, and funny hats we have, the kids will still grab Mommy and Daddy's shoes. After they've chosen their pretend play personas, maybe they will put on a show. Set up a stage, turn on some music, and enjoy the show! Having an audience will make the children feel even more important. During the performance, they will need to imagine themselves as someone else and occasionally negotiate the plot with their fellow actors.

Story time

A variation on putting on a play is to recreate a favorite tale. Kids love to play act parts of books they have read. This is part of the tradition of oral history and allows kids to interact with text and language in a very rich way. Whether they dress up and act out the story themselves or use puppets or figurines, bringing in favorite storybook characters helps children develop their own emotional and social character.

Magic gate

A game I love to play with kids of all ages in a theater class is to have them pass through a magic gate. Kids enjoy using a tunnel, but you can also use a doorway or even crawl under the table. The important thing is that when you come out the other side, you have been magically transported into another land where...we can all fly...there is a lot of gravity and we all feel heavy...we're all dogs. Take turns making suggestions.

Puppet pals

When kids are feeling shy or need to work through something upsetting, it can be a lot easier to talk through a puppet. You don't need an extensive collection of expensive puppets. You can even make your own with socks or paper bags. Adults can use their puppet to ask the child's puppet about her feelings and thoughts. In this safe way, children will be able to better explore and express their emotions.

Think in the box

For outside of the box thinking, just grab a big cardboard box. A box can transform into any setting and makes a great prop for pretend play. Is it a train car? A kitchen? A house? A fire truck? Often kids will use this prop to reenact real life situations, like grocery shopping. This helps reinforce appropriate social behavior and encourages language skills as they describe to others what they are doing.