My son is just starting to get into the basics of role play – also known as pretend play, when a child assumes a role or pretends to be something else, stimulating their imagination. It’s actually the staple for a great deal of play and I’m sure you’re familiar with children engrossed in their imaginary worlds as they run around battling dragons or working together to slay an invisible beastie, but toddlers can start to role play long before they can work together in groups or talk. It can be as simple as playing with a toy kitchen, or putting a wooden carrot onto a plastic plate the way they’ve seen mummy do at dinner.
When William started walking at around 14 months, he started exploring the different sections of our local play groups. Building blocks would be brought over to me, oversized hammers picked up, and giant soft toys jammed in the shopping trolleys. He started watching what the other children were doing and copying them – but not only that, he would be observing adults on a day to day basis and then mimicking their actions in play, such as handing over a coin in payment for something. This is how children learn – they observe, they imagine and they do. This is how their brains develop and by encouraging play, we can encourage their development.
William playing at being a rather energetic shopkeeper at Tee Rex Soft Play
Now, at 18 months, he’s really starting to getting into toys that let him assume a role – something he’s seen older children, adults, or characters on his favourite YouTube channel do. Role play for toddlers really has a massive amount of benefits and is hugely important to development. What might look to an observer like purely entertainment – like a child sitting down playing with a toy kitchen – is actually those amazing brains putting things together and making sense of the world around them. I’m going to talk a bit more about pretend play for children who are still toddlers – so we’re talking the 12 month to 30 month age range, when imaginary play is a little more subtle and can require patience and prompting.
How to encourage a toddler to role play
By providing toys or setting up a role play area for your toddler you’re helping them develop. As toddlers aren’t really interested in sitting still and delving into their imagination for fantasy scenarios, they need something a little more hands on. Keep it simple, brightly coloured, easy to grasp – but with enough to pique their interest. You want to get down on the floor with them and engage with them, playing with the toys at the same time, and for short bursts. If your child is engrossed in their play, then you can back away and let them play independently as this is very important too. My son loves animals and kitchens at the moment, so mock veterinary scenarios and play kitchens are ideal for him.
Here are some popular suggestions for toys that help stimulate pretend play:
- Playing with a toy kitchen or food based items
- Playing with plastic or wooden money and a toy till, and exchanging items for other items with you
- Playing with toy medical equipment
- Playing with toy toolsets
- Playing with a doll and a dollhouse
- Playing with toy animals, farms, stables and similar
- Toys that mimic what the child has seen in the real world and that they can simulate movement and actions with – for example toy cars, airplanes and horses.
- Dressing up and assuming a role
Dressing up in simple outfits and acting out real or imaginary scenarios is an ideal way to encourage pretend play.
The benefits of role play for toddlers
It stimulates imagination and creativity
One of the first benefits of role play for toddlers is that it helps children to start using their imagination and stimulates creativity. Imagination is an incredibly important part of development – and indeed, all our lives. With imagination we can dream and think about things that aren’t immediately in front of us, which give us ambition and drive, as well as hope and even empathy. Imagination leads to problem solving and can be applied in all aspects of life.
It develops cognitive skills and memory
Pretend play is often based off something that a child has seen or experienced. They can recall that situation when a car parked in the car wash and an attendant came out and cleaned it, so now they want to pretend to be the attendant. They park the toy car in the garage they’ve built from bricks, and imagine that they’re cleaning it with a wet wipe. This is directly developing memory. Children recreate the scenes that they have in their heads and then they will apply practical solutions. For example they might wrap a bandage around a doll’s knee after dropping her, imagining that she’s hurt herself and they’re providing medical treatment. Before I started studying child development and had a child of my own I would have thought this was “cute” and that was that- but now I know that this is practical problem solving – drawing a conclusion and applying a solution. When you watch children play, you can literally see them learning and developing even in babies and toddlers.
It helps them cope with real-life situations that might otherwise be stressful
Role play can help prepare children for real life situations and help them process things that happen to them in an adult setting. For example, my son is afraid of getting his feet measured. By buying a foot measuring device at home and practicing playing shoe-shopping, where we sit down, measure his feet, then he chooses a pair of shoes and puts them on, I’m getting him used to the real life task of buying a new pair of shoes, saving him a lot of stress, and me a public meltdown. It can make situations like visiting the doctor or the dentist more familiar and associate them with fun things rather than negativity.
It encourages social development
This may be more relevant for older children, but still applies to infants and toddlers too. Pretend play encourages children to play together, where their roles can interact. An example might be one child playing the shopkeeper, whilst the other comes with the pretend money and buys something. They get to work together, exchange toys and learn about a real life situation. As they develop and get older, they’ll need to learn to collaborate, create rules and follow them, and develop empathy for other people too. A lot of pretend play involves sharing, which is something that a toddler can begin to grasp. Once they begin to talk it can help communication and language skills. With early success at school being linked with social skills rather than academic skills, getting a good foundation on this is a huge benefit.
So as you can see, role play and pretend play are critical parts of a child’s development and they’re also very easy for us to encourage. Before I had my son, I always thought that the most effective way of increasing child development would be through education, but I was wrong. In the early days, for babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers, so much development comes through play and exploration – exploring the world around them and their place in it.