Imaginary Play - The How and Why

playpack pretend play


The inspiration for this post came from a recent visit with a friend. Her daughter is just about to turn three and we were having a conversation about what she enjoys playing with when my friend asked, “she loves imaginary play, what else can we get her to play with?”. 

Having considered this a little more, I thought I’d share my ideas with you all. What can you do for your 3 year old that loves imaginary play? 

First off, I’m going to start with the what to do or the HOW to play… I’ll save the what to GET for next time 😉 

Looking around her toy room, I noticed there was an abundance of 'stuff', so have a think about these things:

  1. What is she doing in her imaginary play? 
  2. How long can a sequence in her play go for? 
  3. Can you add to her current ideas? 
  4. Is she taking on different roles? 
  5. How long is the back and forth in play maintained for?

For example, if she is playing cooking and making you imaginary meals, can you take that one step further and create menus together for her to use so you can place an order. Maybe you can create the cafe itself … a little seating area with table settings. You can then add in a role play about paying for the order. Not all of this needs to happen at once, but each time she plays… think about her ideas and add a little more to them. See how adventurous you can get!

There is a little formula to this though! Don’t take over and start throwing all these ideas at once. START with her ideas and then maybe add in something you know she’ll be interested in. Following your child’s ideas and letting them lead is crucial to building a warm and trusting relationship. This is a recipe that I call the 80:20 mix, 80% their ideas and 20% yours. If your idea gets rejected, go back to theirs… but keep trying so you can extend and expand their play. If you see her cutting up some fruit, you could suggest making a fruit salad or decorating a cake with the fruit. Or you could add to the cutting by talking about slicing very thin or thick slices or grating the food. There are many ways you can extend play but it all starts from their original idea. 

Next have a think about roles - can you start taking turns in the play sequence? Is the play fairly one sided? Taking turns in play is really important and I don’t mean it in the sense of 'your turn, my turn’ but having a back and forth. Maintaining a back and forth is what develops good social communication skills and how conversation develops. And we also need to think about flexibility - can your child play different roles and see things from different perspectives or use different communicative functions? For example, in this cafe scenario, one role involves the ability to ask questions, make requests and the other role requires giving explanations and listening and taking down orders. How good are they are taking on these different roles? 

Most importantly, don’t forget to be PLAYful! Extending a child’s learning is all about being playful and having a bit of fun. What things can happen at this cafe… perhaps there are little problems that occur along the way, like a spilled drink or an incorrect order. Maybe 'wobble the jelly' a little and make a slight change to the sequence of events in their play. How will you navigate these problems together? The learning happens in the process.

Imaginary play is really about using what you already have and the beauty of imaginary play is that you don’t need much at all. That’s one of our core missions here at PlayPack, it’s more about the HOW and not the what. In addition, there doesn’t need to be a dedicated play time for all of this - why not set up a cooking station alongside you as you cook OR set up an invitation to play, by which you set out some items inviting your child to open up their imagination. 

Did you find this interesting? Would you like to find out more? Comment below to share your imaginary play ideas, or let us know what you would like to learn more about. Maybe you have another question about play just like my friend?


x Yasemin 
Speech - Language Pathologist 


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