When Does Imaginative Play Start for Children?

image of a young boy weaing an airplane costume made from cardboard boxes

Play in early childhood is essential for a child’s development. Children learn about themselves and the world around them through play. This helps children develop and improve their social skills, fine and gross motor skills as well as cognitive abilities.

You might be wondering what an appropriate age is to encourage imaginative or pretend play. In short, it’s never too early to encourage pretend play in a child. However, you do have to make sure that the pretend play is age appropriate to ensure that your child gets the most out of it.

In this guide, we’ll provide an overview of imaginative play, what it is and when your little ones might start exploring it. 

What is imaginative play?

Imaginative or pretend play is a type of activity that engages a child’s imagination. When thinking about pretend play, one might conjure up images of elaborate games of make-believe and varieties of toys and costumes.

While children use these things during pretending, they’re not a requirement. Simple pretend play is just as effective, if not more, because it requires the child to really stretch their imagination to engage in fantasy.

Benefits of imaginative play

There are so many benefits to be gained from encouraging a child to partake in pretend play. Unsurprisingly, the main benefit is that your child’s creativity and curiosity will blossom.

Pretend play can help children learn how to solve problems, not just in childhood but also going into adulthood. We use our imaginations and creativity to solve many day-to-day problems as well as navigate situations.

If they are playing with other young children, they may also learn how to control their feelings as they might not agree with the solution that’s been decided on.

Children start to learn about others and form relationships through pretending, especially if they’re playing with a parent or other family members. This can also build a strong bond and relationship built on trust.

Children act out scary or difficult scenarios as a way to work through them when they engage in pretend play. For example, a child may role-play going to the doctor to work through the thoughts and feelings they have surrounding that experience. This type of play can lead to emotional development as it gives the child a safe space to work through new or big emotions.

When children play pretend, particularly with other children, there can be an element of negotiation involved. Agreeing on imaginary themes and roles can encourage the development of the child’s language and communication skills as they work to articulate more complex thoughts, feelings and emotions.

For more, read our guide on why children’s play is important.

Stages of pretend play

If you worry about how much pretend play your child is or isn’t engaging in, a good idea can be to start actively encouraging them to do so! If your child is still finding their feet with playing pretend, your role is to lead them. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated, and it’s probably best that it isn’t.

Choose something to play with or an action to carry out like playing with an interactive doll, and then give your child an opportunity to imitate you. If they do, then you’ve probably been successful and found something they’re interested in playing with.

Be mindful and observant of which toys your child enjoys or gravitates toward; you’ll have more future success by ensuring they have those toys on hand.

Children can feel encouraged while pretending by being able to see their parent’s faces to better gauge their feelings about what’s going on. After all, children often take social cues from their parents. 

Children can feel overwhelmed and less likely to engage in pretend play if there are too many toys available for them. Only put out a few toys and see what the child gravitates towards. This also gives you another chance to encourage your child by engaging with them and whatever toy they choose.

The child will feel more motivated to play if they see that you’re interested in playing with them. If your child seems stuck doing the same thing repeatedly, you may also suggest different scenarios and actions for them to play in.

0 – 18 months

A baby and younger toddlers might not have the capacity for any great leaps of imagination, but they can still be introduced to pretend play. Engaging in conversation with your baby and waiting for them to respond is one way to do so. You can also imitate the sounds the baby makes.

Another age-appropriate way to pretend play with a baby is to give them brightly coloured toys they can safely explore with their mouths, like stuffed animals. It’s also a great time to introduce the child to songs and nursery rhymes, especially if you do the corresponding actions for the songs.

Pretend play develops closer to the 12-month mark. Children perform pretend actions like having a call on a toy phone. You can start to emulate the kind of behaviour that is appropriate, and the child will follow suit and pretend.

18 – 24 months

At this stage, children are most likely to engage in simple pretend play. The child will perform a pretend action on a toy or person who isn’t themselves. Children will start playing make-believe by copying the familiar adults around them, and you’ll see this in actions like feeding their dolls or making their dolls clean up after themselves.

2 – 3 years

At this age, toddlers have a higher capacity for pretending but can still use some adult guidance on what to do. They’ll be able to start combining pretend actions into pretend sequences, but they’ll still be limited by their lack of life experience.

This is a great time to introduce dress-up into your child’s pretend play which can lead to the development of fantasy play. Another suggestion is to role-play any upcoming events that might be unfamiliar and anxiety-inducing for your child, such as visiting a new place.

Enlist your child’s stuffed animals and help them set up a tea party or a dance party! Encourage them to really engage with their stuffed toys and use unexpected objects, such as a remote for a microphone. Pretending with your child in this kind of social play can help them feel more comfortable and confident to pretend play.

3 – 5 years

At this stage, your child won’t need too much encouragement or guidance when it comes to playing imaginatively. Their brain is developed enough, and they’ve experienced enough, that they can come up with their own scenarios and fantasies to keep them occupied.

They will be more interested in fantasy at this point, even though they wouldn’t have experienced it in an authentic way. They’ll mainly be copying what they’ve seen on TV and the books that have been read to them.

At this point, all parents or guardians ideally have to do is keep an eye on their children to make sure that they aren’t doing anything dangerous while they play. As a parent, you should still very much engage in your child’s play and continue to help them explore. Take direction from your child and play along with whatever scenario they’ve created for themselves.


What resources are needed for imaginative play?

This is totally dependent on what your child enjoys and what you can afford! Aside from having enough physical space to engage in pretend play, there are no rules or limitations. Using a wide variety of toys and games like toddler dolls prams can be beneficial for your child and keep them from getting bored.

What kind of pretend play can toddlers do?

Toddlers can partake in dress-up games that lead to make-believe and different scenarios.

Is pretend play and imaginative play the same?

Yes, these are simply two different terms for the same type of play that is critical to a child’s development.

Help kickstart your little one’s imaginative play with Play Like Mum

Gifting your child a dolls pram is a great way of helping them to make the most of imaginative play. At Play Like Mum, we have a range of dolls prams and pushchairs to choose from, including twin doll strollers and dolls carriage prams. We also have an extensive range of dolls pram accessories to make playtime as fun as possible!

For more guidance, read our guide on how to encourage imaginative play in children and grandchildren.