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Brittany N. Thompson
Brittany N. Thompson

Beyond Reality: Pretend Play Matters

Pretend play is related to positive social outcomes for young children.

 used with permission
Source: used with permission

What is Pretend Play?

Pretend play begins around 2 years of age, increases around 3-4 years of age, and declines again around 6 years of age, at which time children begin transitioning to playing more games with rules (Piaget, 1962). Pretend play is commonly defined among researchers as play involving “transformations” (Fein, 1975) and holding multiple representations of objects and the thoughts and feelings of others at once (Leslie, 1987).

What does this mean in the context of a child’s everyday play activities? When a child uses a block as a telephone, or a ball as a piece of food, he is using “transformations” – this involves using an object as something other than its intended purpose. When a child explains to a playmate that “You have to crawl because you’re the baby,” he understands that his peer may not know the rules of the games yet, and he therefore must explain them so that they can share mental states. Moreover, if the rules change – “Ok, now you’re grown up and can walk” – the child explicitly stating this demonstrates that he understands that his peer will think he is a baby still unless the change is shared with him. These examples show how understanding the mental representations of others is important in pretend play.

Pretend often involves role assignments and negotiations, such that children must decide who will play what role in the pretend play scenario, and the rules of that scenario must be decided among playmates (Doyle, Doehring, Tessier, de Lorimier, & Shapiro, 1992). Piaget posits that pretend sets the foundation for “games with rules,” where children’s activities come with a predetermined set of rules they must follow, not rules that are negotiated amongst the peer group. These role assignments and negotiations are helpful in practicing social skills and building a repertoire of strategies for interacting with others.

Pretend Play and Social Skills

There is a plethora of research on pretend play being connected with social development in young children. However, this connection could go in either direction – pretend play may lead to more advanced social skills, or social skills could lead to more advanced pretend play. Research has found that children who engage in more complex pretend play in structured play tasks also score higher on parent reports of social competence, which involve ratings of the child’s ability to enter social interactions, pay attention, and self-regulate. When these play tasks were engaged in with another child, pretend play was more social than other types of play. Similarly, children who engage in more pretend play when observed in their preschool classrooms are generally more accepted by peers and rated as more socially competent (more accepted by peers, more sensitive, less aggressive) by teachers. With all these positive relationships between pretend play and social skills, though, it is still difficult to understand whether pretend play leads to more advanced social skills, or whether children who are more social simply tend to engage in more pretend play.

Importantly, when children engage in pretend play on the playground, these positive effects are not seen – children who engaged in more pretend play on the playground were less liked by peers. Therefore, it appears that the fit of the type of play to the context in which the play is occurring is also important for developing social skills and relationships with peers. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems model suggests that the context in which development occurs must be considered to fully understand a child’s development. Children develop within home, school, and other environments, and are affected by the people within all those environments, such as parents, teachers, and peers. Different behaviors may be more appropriate in different environments, and pretend play could have differential outcomes based on in which environment it occurs.

Encouraging Pretend in Everyday Contexts

Source: used with permission
Source: used with permission

Although there are still a lot of details to understand about exactly what it is about pretend play that may lead to positive social outcomes, and in what contexts these positive outcomes occur, we do know that pretend play seems to be helpful for emerging social skills. It may be that children who are social tend to pretend play more or that pretend play creates an environment in which children can hone more advanced social skills. But, when it comes to the everyday lives of kids who are at the prime age (3-5) for pretend play right now, does this difference really matter? Pretend play certainly cannot hurt a child’s development, as long as it occurs in appropriate contexts and not in contexts more conducive to other types of play (i.e. on the playground). So, when interacting with preschoolers, adults can encourage transformations by presenting objects as something else – pretend that a banana is a telephone or a stick is a spoon to stir soup. Even better, more advanced pretend is characterized as that which does not involve props or using body parts to pretend but rather using “imagined objects,” such as holding imaginary scissors while pretending to cut rather than using your fingers as scissors (Overton & Jackson, 1973). By demonstrating pretend to preschoolers, you may help those who do not naturally engage in pretend play to engage in it more frequently and to demonstrate more advanced pretend, which could have a beneficial impact on their social skills.

Pretend play may not come easily to all children, especially those with autism who tend to engage in more non-symbolic play than those with few autism symptoms (Kang, Klein, Lillard, & Lerner, 2016). Children with autism tend to have delays in Theory of Mind (Mazz et al, 2017), which is involved in understanding another’s mental states and representations of the world. This delay can make it difficult to pretend, as playmates need to understand the role assignments and rules that are negotiated, as well as changes to these roles and rules that may occur throughout the play, to have a successful pretend play experience with peers. Children with autism do tend to engage in similar amounts of pretend play, such as substituting objects and imitating actions, but delays in theory of mind tend to relate to their pretend play being less complex (Lin, Tsai, Li, Huang, & Chen, 2017). Anecdotally, from my own observations, children with autism may shy away from more complex pretend play due to the difficulty they experience in negotiating social interactions and understanding others’ perspectives. When children with autism are more engaged with parents or presented with structured pretend behaviors to imitate, they are able to engage in more pretend play (Campbell, Leezenbaum, Mahoney, Moore, & Brownell, 2016), so adults who interact with young children with autism could assist in lowering the barrier for them to enter into pretend play. Pretend play, although it may be delayed in its emergence and less complex in its nature, should relate to positive social outcomes for children with autism when it does occur much like it does for children who are typically developing.


Campbell, S. B., Leezenbaum, N., Mahoney, A., Moore, E., & Brownell, C. (2016). Pretend play and social engagement in toddlers at high and low genetic risk for autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(7), 2305-2316. doi:10.1007/s10803-016-2764-y

Doyle, A.B., Doehring, P., Tessier, O., de Lorimier, S., & Shapiro, S. (1992). Transitions in children's play: A sequential analysis of states preceding and following social pretense. Developmental Psychology, 28(1), 137-144. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.28.1.137

Fein, G. (1975). A transformational analysis of pretending. Developmental Psychology, 11(3), 291-296.

Kang, E., Klein, E.F., Lillard, A.S., & Lerner, M.D. (2016). Predictors and moderators of spontaneous pretend play in children with and without autism spectrum disorder. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(1577). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01577

Leslie, A. M. (1987). Pretense and representation: The origins of “theory of mind.” Psychological Review, 94, 412-426.

Lin, S., Tsai, C., Li, H., Huang, C., & Chen, K. (2017). Theory of mind predominantly associated with the quality, not quantity, of pretend play in children with autism spectrum disorder. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 26(10), 1187-1196. doi:10.1007/s00787-017-0973-3

Mazz, M., Mariano, M., Peretti, S., Masedu, F., Pino, M. C., & Valenti, M. (2017). The role of Theory of Mind on social information processing in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A mediation analysis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47, 1369-1379. doi:10.1007/s10803-017-3069-5

Overton, W. F., & Jackson, J. P. (1973). The representation of imagined objects in action sequences: A developmental study. Child Development, 44(2), 309-314.

Piaget, J. (1962). Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

About the Author
Brittany N. Thompson

Brittany Thompson is a Ph.D. student in Applied Developmental Psychology at George Mason University.