Encouraging Imaginary Play

Encouraging Imaginary Play

By Dr. Keili Mistovich, MD, MPH

Play is one of the most basic yet most essential components of childhood development. Pretend play is the lens through which children learn about the world; it’s immensely critical to their social, physical, emotional, sensory, and cognitive development. What can we, as parents, do to encourage our kids to play? Easy—just support it!

What that support looks like can take on many forms and much of this depends on your child’s age and current stage of development. As your child’s brain grows, their play becomes more and more complex—think of a toddler compared to a kindergartner. Toddlers will play near each other, but not really with each other. Older children will engage with other kids and play interactive games with rules, compromise, and elaborate storylines.

Styles of Play for Different Age Ranges

There are four main styles of play. Most children will progress through the different types of play in this order:

0 – 24 months

  • Solitary play: Playing alone.
  • Example: A child is picking up blocks and clapping them together to make noise.

24 – 36 months

  • Parallel play: Playing near other children but not with them.
  • Example: Two children are both playing with blocks but building separate towers.

3 years +

  • Interactive play: Play that begins to engage with other children.
  • Example: Children are building a block tower together.

4 years +

  • Cooperative play: Interactive play that is more elaborate and complex.
  • Example: Children are building a block tower that is then incorporated into a game of princesses and dragons.

These various styles of play help build social and emotional development as well as cognitive development in children.

Types of Play

An important aspect of encouraging pretend play is to consider how the adults can get involved or whether they should sit it out and let kids run the show. In the world of play research, this is called structured versus unstructured play—both are important and necessary.

Unstructured Play

Unstructured play is free play. Send your kids outside and let them run wild. Pour a container of blocks on the playroom floor and walk away. Fun, freestyle play is the name of the game here. This type of play has so many benefits for your child’s cognitive development.

Unstructured play gives your child the space to take risks and experiment. It promotes independence and agency while allowing your child to learn to navigate an ever-evolving social dynamic with other children. Your child’s executive functioning skills get kicked into action with continued problem solving—all in the name of fun!

Structured Play

Structured play, on the other hand, is play with a purpose. It’s still fun, but there’s an underlying goal of teaching and learning. Structured play is a way of intentionally teaching children about the world through play. For example, instead of just dumping out that bucket of blocks, you would sit down with your child and engage. You can teach your child about colors and numbers, properties of physics by building a tower with a strong base, and set some rules that emphasize turn-taking and sharing.

Not only does structured play allow you to spend some quality time with your little one, but it also provides the benefit of teaching your child important skills. With your guidance, your children will discover new ways of playing with toys, improve their language and communication skills, and even develop their physical strength, balance, and coordination!

Now remember, while you do get to be involved in the play time, try your best not to take over.  It’s important to ensure that your child is still given the freedom to let their imagination soar. If your child wants to build a train station that then gets eaten by dinosaurs, go with it! Your job is to incorporate the learning into whatever storyline your child’s imagination creates.

What Is a Parent’s Role in Play with Children?

When children are young, their minds are like sponges—seize this moment and take advantage of the time to teach. This is the perfect opportunity to span the generations and get parents and grandparents alike engaged with children. Not only does this build relationships within your family, it allows your child to experience many different styles of teaching and learning.

One the most common questions that I get from my families at the doctor’s office is how do I best play with my kids? For so many parents, especially first-time parents, there’s so much that can be learned!

The first two questions that you, as a parent, should be asking yourself are:

  1. What should we play with, and how do we play with it? Not all toys are made equal, and it’s important to identify what the strengths of each toy are.
  2. What can your child learn from this play experience? Not to mention, what can you learn from this experience of playing with your child?

How to Choose the Best Pretend Play Toys

When choosing which toys to buy, consider these questions:

  • What is the age and developmental stage of your child?
  • What are the next skills that your child should be learning? If you’re unsure, ask your pediatrician!
  • Does this toy specifically meet these needs?
  • How can my child grow with this toy?

Great Toy Ideas for Pretend Play

Here are some great ideas to get you started! Remember: not all toys need to be fancy. Some toys are thoughtfully and intentionally designed to meet the developmental needs of your child. In contrast, sometimes you don’t need a specific toy at all—just open up your kitchen cabinet!

Water Play

Kids love playing in water, and it’s great for kids of any age and developmental stage. Water play paves the way for physics experiments galore!

For toddlers, let them splash and pour water between containers:

  • Talk out loud about what you are seeing, feeling, and hearing
  • Use descriptive words
  • Do repetitive activities

Little ones need to see and do things over, and over, and over.  With older kids, you can ask them what if questions. For example, “What will happen if we pour water from different heights? Which height will make the biggest splash?”

Teach them about volume and displacement of water. Make hypotheses about which objects will sink and which will float. The bath tub is great for these types of experiments and so are Step2’s beloved water tables! One of the great things about these water tables is that there are so many teaching tools built in to help your child learn and explore!

Role Play Ideas for Kids

Play houses, kitchens, and workshops may be the perfect pretend play toys for kids 2 to 3 years and up! The possibilities are endless, and your child’s imagination will soar.

One of the primary cognitive developmental skills that children will master over these early years is imaginary play. The second is language. Pretend play and the creation of imaginary worlds will focus on both!

Pretend play for toddlers focuses primarily on mimicking or copying behaviors that they see adults doing. When working on this social development skill, your focus should be to teach children what to do. In other words, pick up a baby doll, feed it, rock it, sing to it, put it to sleep.

Use a toddler play kitchen to “cook” and make food for everyone in the family. Talk about the food being hot or cold and use descriptive words, such as hungry and full. Incorporate animated gestures into your conversation: rub your belly and lean back in your chair to show your child you are so full!

As kids get older, their imaginary play becomes more and more complex. Characters develop, and suddenly, you’re the little sister or the grandpa. Allow your child to assign roles and develop the storyline. Your job is to play along, talk out loud about everything you’re doing, and have fun!

Pretend Play Toys

Need to find the perfect playhouse? Look no further—Step2 has artfully developed so many pretend play toys, such as playhouses, kitchens, and workshops. Choices abound!

Play is critical to your child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. Get down on the floor with your child and have some fun!


What are your favorite ways to get your child’s imagination engaged? Comment below!

Dr. Keili Mistovich, MD, MPH, is a mom, pediatrician, and fierce advocate for children. She earned a Doctor of Medicine degree and Master’s of Public Health from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Dr. Keili graduated from the Pediatric Residency Program at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and was on the clinical faculty at Pitt. She also cared for children at the nationally renowned Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. Dr. Keili is now a co-founder of Greater Cleveland Pediatrics, a new practice with a unique and personalized approach to patient care for all families.

1 Comment
  1. I have more fun in the floor or playing imaginary games with my grandkids than I do in real life. There is a pureness in a Child’s imagination that cannot be replaced by anything.

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