Brittany N. Thompson

Socioemotional Success

A New Theory of the Progression of Pretend Play Development

A systematic review of definitions, measurement, and components of pretend play

Posted Jun 25, 2019

This post was co-written by Brittany Thompson and Dr. Thalia R. Goldstein. The post discusses an academic paper recently published in Developmental Review.

Thalia R. Goldstein, used with permission.
Source: Thalia R. Goldstein, used with permission.

Play is a core activity of early childhood.  It is engaged in by all children and each type of play is beneficial for children in different ways. Pretend play is particularly interesting to me because it involves a combination of complex cognitive, physical, and social behaviors that even very young children are capable of performing. When children pretend, they often demonstrate skills more advanced than they may show in other contexts, which suggests that pretend play could be a unique context for intervention and learning. Moreover, another interest of mine is autism spectrum disorders, and deficits in pretend play are widely experienced by children with ASD.

As I embarked upon my second year of graduate school, I got my hands on everything I could read about pretend play. What does it do for kids? Why do children around the world all start playing before they turn 3 years old, and why is the absence of pretend possibly an early symptom of a developmental delay or different neurological development? I started with Lillard and colleagues’ well-known meta-review conducted in 2013, which summarized pretend play’s relationships with various other child development outcomes and concluded that, in most areas, we cannot make causal claims about what it is that pretend play does for children. This paper reviewed more than 250 studies, books, and theoretical papers to come to this conclusion. This is shocking when you think about how widely spread the idea is that play causes so many developmental outcomes.

As I read paper after paper, it became clear that there may be a deceptively simple reason why: We actually are not very consistent about what pretend play is. That is, researchers are inconsistent about how pretend play is defined and measured, which adds to the difficulty in drawing causal conclusions. After reading, sorting, and pulling apart measurement strategies from nearly 200 empirical articles that measured pretend play, I came to the conclusion that there are five core components of pretend play that can be measured and defined as follows:

  • Object substitution: Any instance of using one object as something else or using an imaginary object. Example: Using a toy banana as a telephone.
  • Attributing pretend properties: Giving properties to an object that it does not inherently have. Example: Pretending a doll’s face is dirty or making a stuffed animal “talk.”
  • Social interactions within pretend play: A reciprocal, back-and-forth interaction with one or more peers while engaged in some element of pretense (e.g., object substitution, property attribution, role play).
  • Role play: A child acting as if he or she is someone else, with or without using props. Example: Acting like a chef by cooking food and wearing a chef’s hat.
  • Pretense-related metacommunication: Assigning roles, negotiating rules, creating a storyline, or any other type of organization and planning of the play scenario.

One reason I identified these as the core components of pretend play is that they are the most commonly measured identifiable and individualizable behaviors. However, many studies don’t even measure individual behaviors. 

Of all the studies reviewed, 27.1 percent measured pretend play in a binary manner: Was the child’s play pretend in nature or not? The remaining studies measured one of these five components, with 30.7 percent including object substitution, 6 percent measuring the attribution of pretend properties, 17.6 percent measuring social interactions, 24.6 percent including role play, and 6 percent including metacommunication. Some studies looked at more than one component (in which case the study was counted in the percentages for all components that were included).

Not only are these the most consistently measured pretend play components, but these are the elements of pretense supported by longstanding developmental theory as being important for children’s development as well.

If we go back to Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s fundamental theories about children’s development, they each emphasized these components. Piaget’s emphasis on symbols and cognitive representations support the utility of object substitutions and attributing pretend properties for children’s development.

Vygotsky’s emphasis on sociocultural development indicates the importance of social interactions and role play for children to advance their skills. Fein later made the addition of pretense-related metacommunication being a key element in creating complex pretend play scenarios that would further improve children’s development.

A New Theory of the Developmental Progression of Pretend Play

After identifying these key components of pretend play, we theorized that the components develop hierarchically, in the order presented above, across the preschool years (3-5 years of age). This order makes sense given what we know about when and how each of these components develops, and also given the cognitive and social complexity of each component. The components build on each other, with the least cognitively and socially complex component being object substitution and the most complex being metacommunication. By the end of the preschool years (5- or 6-years-old), we expect that most children will be able to engage in all five of the core pretend play behaviors, and sometimes these may occur simultaneously in their play. But further research, which we are currently conducting, is necessary to see how this theory manifests in preschoolers’ natural play.

The creation of this new theory meets a few specific goals in improving the definition and measurement of pretend play:

  1. It creates a detailed definition based on behaviors that are indicative of pretend play overall. This is a key step in establishing construct validity, and a step that was lacking in the empirical research reviewed for this paper.
  2. It presents a definition that can be used to determine where a child is developmentally in their pretend play skills, which will be helpful for developing interventions and programs to support pretend play.
  3. Measurement systems created with a goal of encapsulating this definition and theory of pretend play will be able to make conclusions about which specific components of pretend play relate to other developmental outcomes. These connections should help the field in making more causal conclusions about how pretend play helps (or doesn’t help) other areas of child development.

This is certainly just a first step of many in improving how we research pretend play. A combination of naturalistic and lab-based measurement, considerations of culture and demographics, and other factors that are related to pretend play development (language development, executive functions, affect, theory of mind, etc.) must be considered as we continue to improve the way we study pretend play. Although there is still much work to be done in this area, this comprehensive theory, which includes all the behaviors indicative of pretend play, makes an important contribution to our ability to understand direct relationships between pretend play and other areas of child development.


Lillard, A. S., Lerner, M. D., Hopkins, E. J., Dore, R. A., Smith, E. D., & Palmquist, C. M. (2013). The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), 1–34.