Imaginative Play

What is Imaginative Play?

Imaginative Play is sometimes interchangeably used with Pretend Play.

18 - 24-month-olds

Image Source: Baby Center


Pretend Play is a simpler form of Imaginative Play, and is usually more action-based, reflecting realistic activities, like pretending to feed a doll milk. This is also known as symbolic thinking – using something to stand for something else. This sort of simpler, action-based play is more visible in 18-24 month olds.

Ages 2 - 3

Image Source: PJ Hayman


Between ages 2 to 3, that symbolic thinking becomes more sophisticated. The objects a child uses starts to look less and less like what they’re supposed to be, such as using plastic cups as phones. Pretend Play is a pre-requisite to Imaginative Play.


Image Source: Reading Eggs


Imaginative Play is more complex and typically develops by 3 years old. It can involve full scenarios, characters and role plays. At first, the child may begin by simulating scenarios and routines they experience every day, like going to the grocery store.

As they get older, their Imaginative Plays start to go beyond the bounds of their own experience. Suddenly, they’re superheros on a mission, having a pool party with Barbie or staging intense dinosaur battles.


It is an exciting period, and the possibilities are endless!

Why is Imaginative Play important?

Imaginative Play is different from any other play because of how much language and social skills children need to use to imagine scenarios and decide how to respond to them. They often assume various characters, and must predict what others would think and feel. 


The skill of imagination is also not limited to just childhood. Adults constantly use their imagination to help them invent new things, solve problems, enjoy a book or movie, understand others’ perspectives, make plans, come up with ideas, and think creatively.


Many children also play imaginarily together. Inevitably, they will run into conflict and disagreements which will require them to take turns, compromise and sometimes cope when the play does not go the way they want.

Can children with autism learn Imaginative Play?

Autism is a spectrum, so there is a large spectrum as well in Imaginative Play.


Some children with autism have colourful imaginations and have no issue coming up with fantastical stories on their own. 


Some children have more limited language and social skills and will continue to find it hard to play imaginatively. They may benefit more from other types of plays like Toy and Sensory Play, which do not require the language and creativity of Imaginative Play.


Hence, a pre-requisite to teaching Imaginative Play is for the child to:

  • have good imitation skills
  • have some expressive language skills
  • at least be speaking in short phrases if not sentences.

How to teach Imaginative Play

There are many different strategies you can use to teach a child Imaginative Play, and each strategy can be broken down into smaller steps if needed.



Observe for interests

Firstly, a parent should observe what their child already likes and use that as a starting point. This not only increases the likelihood the child will like what is presented, it does not overwhelm them with needing to learn multiple new plays at once. For example, a child who likes slides at the playground might like pretending Mummy’s legs are a slide.



Expand on existing pretend actions

For children who have some pretend actions already, try increasing the complexity:

  • For a child who can push a car along and say, “Vroom!”, one can pretend the car has broken and down and needs to go to a mechanic.
  • If they like to feed their toys pretend food, expand into pretend drinks, or ‘buying’ food from a shop.


Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Expose children to new experiences as often as possible. Most children follow everything their parents do – from trying to put on their parents’ shoes, glasses, and pretending to talk on the phone.

  • Read storybooks about superheroes saving the day or fairies and princesses in faraway castles
  • Visit the zoo, go to the beach or spend the day at the theme park. 

Children tend to recreate and mimic what they see in their life. Imaginative play by definition, is the process of recreating something one has never seen before. Hence, before starting a new imaginative play, it is important the child has had some level of exposure to the concept, be it in real life, on video or through books. For example, a child cannot play ‘The Floor is Lava’ if they do not know what lava is – this can be easily remedied through watching videos or looking at books.



Purchase child versions of adult things

Purchase child versions of adult things to make the Imaginative Play feel more real, such as keys, phones, shopping carts or building blocks for ‘constructing buildings’. 


As a child grows older, introduce versatile, less obvious play objects: 

  • a cardboard box can be a rocket ship or a bus 
  • a blanket can be a cape, a flying carpet or a field of snow. 


Join in with your child!

Ideas rarely come out of nowhere with no source of inspiration – parents are encouraged to join in with their children, expand on ideas, ask inferring questions and encourage problem-solving. Occasionally disagreeing will also prompt the child to find a win-win solution for all.

Your Turn

  1. What stage of Imaginative Play is your child at?
  2. Try out 1-2 new Imaginative Plays.

Download this free list of Imaginative Play ideas!