13 - 15 Months

4 types of pretend play—and why they matter

Pretend play is one of the most powerful ways that young children learn. It lets them experiment with activities and roles that they often don’t get a chance to try in “real” life. 

For example, when your toddler pretends to give their doll a bath, they get to act like the parent and caregiver. This is a rich opportunity for them to develop both cognitive and social-emotional skills. You may also hear them use new words that you haven’t heard before.

How your child engages in pretend play will change as they grow.

1. Imitative play

When it might start: 13 to 18 months

If your toddler puts a blanket over a doll or makes babbling noises while flipping a few pages of a board book, they’re engaging in imitative play. This very early pretend play involves repeating and practicing little snippets of what they do or see you do. It reveals your toddler’s growing cognitive and memory skills—they see what you do, then they remember and reenact it later. 

2. Symbolic play

When it might start: 18 to 24 months 

Using one object to stand in for another signals a cognitive leap known as representation—the start of symbolic play. For example, your child might fill a bowl with small blocks, then pretend to stir and eat the “soup” they made. They now know that blocks are used for building towers, but they can also stand for something entirely different, like potatoes and carrots. They’ll apply the same concept when they learn that letters represent sounds and words can represent abstract ideas, like love ❤️

3. Dramatic play

When it might start: 2 1/2 to 3 years

When your child starts copying whole scenes from life, like reenacting the steps of their bedtime routine with a doll, they’re in a new stage called dramatic play. This indicates another cognitive shift—now your child can remember the order of steps in a routine.

In time, their dramatic play will get more elaborate. They may create longer, more involved scenarios, like “going to the doctor” after a recent visit to the pediatrician with a stuffed animal (or you) standing in for the patient.

They may also act out these realistic, dramatic play scenarios with little figures or peg dolls. This is known as “small world play.” The Wooden Camper with Locking Doors(The Free Spirit Play Kit) and the Modular Play House (The Observer Play Kit) are perfect for realistic, small world play. The more your child plays out these dramatic scenarios, the more practice they get taking the perspective of other people. 

4. Fantasy play

When it might start: About 4 years

As your child’s play gets more complex, they’ll start engaging in more unrealistic play. Maybe they’re a superhero saving the day or a dinosaur roaming ancient earth. This type of fantasy play marks another leap in cognition: Your child is now imagining scenes that they’ve never experienced, edging further toward understanding abstract ideas and concepts. 

Often, children experiment with rules and powerful roles in fantasy play. Whether they’re playing with a group of friends or on their own, fantasy play lets your child be in charge and practice taking turns, conflict resolution, and other social skills.  

Learn more about the research

Bergen, D. (2002). The role of pretend play in children’s cognitive development. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 4(1), n1.


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Posted in: 13 - 15 Months, 16 - 18 Months, 19 - 21 Months, Social Emotional, Creativity, Pretend Play, Cognitive Development, Lovevery App, Child Development

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