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The 5 Stages of Pretend Play in Early Childhood

Throughout early childhood, children engage in many types of play that are all equally important for their development. One of these is pretend play, also known as imaginative, make-believe or fantasy play.

Children typically progress through 5 stages of pretend play.

Pretend play may appear to just be a child imitating what they see around them and how others are behaving, but it stimulates a great deal of creativity and thinking skills.

When children act out their world together, they engage in cooperative behaviour as they work together to create a fantasy scene. This involves high levels of social skills.

They also develop emotionally as they act out life scenarios that are full of emotions and new experiences. Playing gives them a safe space to experience these big emotions.

Here are the 5 stages of imaginative play in early childhood, as explained in the book “Learning Through Play: A parent’s guide to the first five years”, by Jan Natanson.

Child playing with doll. Text reads "The five stages of pretend play".

1. Enactive Naming

The first phase of pretend play is called enactive naming. In this stage, a child is not yet actively “pretending,” rather he is showing the knowledge he has.

For example, the first time he puts an empty spoon or cup to his mouth, he may be imitating a behaviour he has seen or acting out his understanding of the objects, but he is not yet playing.

He is beginning to learn the difference between real and not real. 

Young children love to imitate the actions and behaviours they see around them and may also want to sweep the floor, whether with a real broom or a toy broom. 

Toddler sweeping the floor with a mop

2. Autosymbolic Schemes

Kids start playing pretend at around the age of 12 months, but only in relation to themselves.

In the second stage, called autosymbolic schemes, the young child begins to display the first signs of pretending.

A child may pretend to lie down and sleep or take a pretend sip from their cup while making noises to show she is drinking. 

At this stage you will see that the child is intending to play by her mannerisms and actions – she may smile or look at you to show you that she is pretending.

Playing with toy replicas of household objects is fun for young toddlers, and by using these items for their correct functions, they show their growing cognitive skills.

Toddler talking on pretend phone

At some point, the young child will start to engage in pretend play by using objects to represent other objects. This is called symbolic play.

This means a child who wishes to pretend to talk on the phone, may reach for a block instead of a real phone or a toy that represents the real object.

The child feels that the block shares some characteristics with a phone – perhaps the size and the shape – and it becomes a good replacement for the phone.

This kind of symbolic pretend play shows yet another layer of advanced thinking.

Pretending while playing is rooted in a child’s social development. Their interactions with parents, family, peers and other caregivers forms the basis of their play, and forms the foundation for their cognitive development.

3. Decentred Symbolic Schemes

Between the age of 12 and 24 months, a child will begin to involve others in his pretend play. 

He will pass you the cup to take a sip from or try to feed you with an empty spoon. This shows that he is becoming aware of others as being separate from himself. 

From around 2 years of age, toddlers often begin to play with dolls. They see their dolls as living beings, with feelings and states, such as hunger and tiredness.

Toddler playing with a doll

This behaviour shows a huge leap in a child’s thinking skills as he matures.

It is also believed that the advanced thinking shown during pretend play is not yet seen in other aspects of a child’s life at this young age.

During this type of play, a child knows he is pretending and knows that the other child is pretending and that they are both attaching mental concepts to their scenario. 

This type of awareness is unusual as children typically see everything from an egocentric viewpoint. 

During pretend play; however, they are able to experience something from someone else’s shoes and even try out different points of view.

Children also show that while engaging in symbolic play they are able to assign two separate identities to an object – such as understanding that a block is a block, and in this case, also a phone.

They cannot do this in other contexts, for example, when looking at pictures of objects that represent other objects.

To give an example of this in a language context – a very young child knows that a banana is a banana, but will not also refer to it as a fruit.

Pretend play, therefore, plays a big role in helping a child develop thinking skills.

Even the objects that a child uses to play with shows his level of thinking. In the beginning, he uses real objects, toy replicas, and then other objects as representations.

Child using a banana as a phone

The older a child gets, the more he can use non-realistic toys in his play, with imagination being the only thing he needs.

4. Sequencing Pretend Acts

In this stage, a child learns to apply a logical sequence to her pretending. If she wants to give her doll a bath, for example, she will take off her clothes before doing so.

The child has learned through observing others and how people behave in various contexts and is strengthening her memory skills so that this knowledge can be used later, in a play context.

5. Planned Pretend

In this final stage, known as planned pretend, a child will collect props and items that she needs for her pretend play.

She will have a specific idea in mind for what she wants to act out and will plan accordingly. She may pretend to be a teacher giving a lesson, or a mother taking her child to the shops.

Preschoolers are usually in this stage of pretend play and they use high-level social skills while engaging.

They need to communicate well, play a specific role, allow others to play their roles, share and take turns, and follow the agreed rules, as they play with a common goal.

Sometimes this requires compromising, negotiating and persuading.

Read more about the types of play in early childhood.

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