Your Ultimate Guide to Pretend Play + the BEST Pretend Play Toys

This post is a 101 on pretend play and includes ideas for pretend play toys for the upcoming holiday season!

Your Ultimate Pretend Play 101 Guide

Definition of Pretend Play

Pretend play within the concept of child development is not black and white and evolves as a child develops.

Pretend play is a form of symbolic play where children use objects, actions or ideas to represent other objects, actions, or ideas using their imaginations to assign roles to inanimate objects or people. Classically, toddlers will use a broom and pretend he is riding a horse.

The Importance of Pretend Play

Here are a few key points highlighting the importance of pretend play in a child’s development:

Stages of Pretend Play

Pretend play begins early in a child’s life but is limited by his imagination and experiences. So, early on, a child relies more on “symbolic play” and as he develops moves into “functional play”.

Piaget referred to these stages as the preoperational stage beginning around 2 years old (or when a child first begins to talk) and lasting until the age of 6 or 7. Early on, a child recognizes that objects or actions represent other objects or actions yet still recognize those objects or actions for what they truly are within context.

For example, a child may use a stick in a variety of ways such as pretending it is a fishing pole, a gun, or a magic wand. The child understands he is using a stick to play but uses symbolism to create and execute his imagination.  If a child jumps off a couch and claims to be flying, he is using an action to pretend to be a superhero, for example, but still recognizes that he is not a superhero flying in the air.

As the child develops and grows older, symbolic play blossoms into play that involves thoughts such as “why is that?” instead of “what is that?” So, a child who plays with a stick may eventually desire to use a real fishing pole to put it into the context of the world in which he is experiencing.  Another example is a 4-year-old may be playing with a cardboard box and announce that he is “playing moving”.

Montessori & Pretend Play

One of the big “concerns” or “criticisms” of Montessori is that Pretend Play is not encouraged in the classroom. Generally, I believe that pretend play is based in reality.

So, if we expose children to real-life through meaningful, productive work and experiences and allow them to open their eyes to the great big world around them, they will, in turn, incorporate these experiences into their play and their imaginations will be richer from it. (Sorry that was a long sentence.)

Therefore, the hope is that the play will have a more deeply ingrained impact on their development. I suppose it is like anything in life (going to business school and learning about management as opposed to actually having the experience…for example).

Montessori Services offers a good breakdown of real versus imaginary play in a Montessori classroom.

Pretend Play Toys

Melissa & Doug Spray, Squirt & Squeegee Play Set

Melissa & Doug have a load of wonderful pretend (or symbolic) playsets for kids. This cleaning set is too functional and useful not to include in this list. Be sure to check out the myriad of other pretend play toys offered by Melissa & Doug.

Dyson Ball Vacuum

Melissa & Doug Laundry Basket Play Set

Pretend Eggs Play Food

Pretend Play Restaurant

Animal Clinic

Wooden Doctor’s Kit

Add this doctor’s office printable set and you’re golden!

Dentist Kit

This Etsy store has a ton of adorable pretend play materials including pretend play detective, police, and toolkit.

KidKraft Laundry Playset

Pretend Play Farm Stand

Country Market Printables

Ironing Board Set

Kitchen & Dinner Set

Cooking Set

Fresh Mart Grocery

How adorable is this play grocery store checkout?

Pretend Play Resources

Marnie Craycroft

Marnie hails from Maine where she spent summers buried in sand and winters buried in snow. She is the daughter of a nearly four decade veteran of the public school systems. Teaching has always been a part of her life. She founded Carrots Are Orange in 2010.

Carrots Are Orange is a Montessori learning and living website for parents and teachers.

Marnie graduated from Wesleyan University in 1999 with a BA in Economics. She spent nearly a decade working in investment management. In 2006, she earned her MA in business from the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business.

Marnie moved to the west coast in 1999 and currently lives in Boulder with her husband and three sons. She is Montessori trained. Her work has been featured on Apartment Therapy, Buzzfeed, PBS Kids, BabyCenter, the Melissa & Doug blog, Huffington Post, and Besides writing, passions include running (usually after her three sons), photography, and outdoor adventures.

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