Pretend Play is a Child’s Work!

Pretend Play is a Child’s Work!

He taonga te tākaro, play is important. Play is what children do. It is their primary job and how children learn. This is widely acknowledged in Aotearoa as it is overseas by educational organisations, teachers and developmental professionals alike.

Kindergarten was founded on the ideas of Freidrich Froebel who believed that play was the best way to develop children’s potential. There are many different definitions of the different kinds of play and many different stages of development within these. Karen Stagnitti, Occupational Therapist and Author of ‘Learn to Play’ (see link to website in references) describes Gross Motor, Fine Motor, Sensory,Visual perceptual, Auditory and Pretend Play. All are important for the various areas of child development and one play activity may combine more than one kind of play. But as a speech and language therapist the one that I find the most interesting and relevant to the development of communication is pretend play.

As an SLT, I have come to value pretend play as something that develops alongside and is intertwined with communication skills. Pretend play contains one of the following three things during play. They use objects as something else, they link attributes to things and pretend something is there when it is not.

Karen Stagnitti writes that “Pretend play is linked with language development, narrative language, abstract thought, logical sequential thought, creation of stories, social competence with peers, self-regulation, social and emotional well-being, creativity, and the ability to play with others in the role of ‘player’.” Many of the above are also important for literacy and studies have shown correlation between pretend play skills and later literacy development.

Stagnitti (2011) replicated previous studies that showed children from lower socio-economic homes demonstrated delays in both pretend play and narrative language skills. In the same study she demonstrated that incorporation of play based curriculum for 5-6 year olds increased their skills in both the play and language domains including narrative language as well as social competence in comparison to a non play based curriculum.

Despite all these amazing attributes of pretend play and it’s relationship across different spheres of development, it is mentioned only once in Te Whāriki, under the communication strand. Yet we would see examples of exploring, belonging, contributing and communicating within children’s pretend play.

Given the above, it’s important that Early Childhood Teachers are able to describe a child’s pretend play skills, understand where a child is in their levels of pretend play and be aware of ways to encourage pretend play in those who find it more difficult.

The tool that I have mostly used for evaluating pretend play is the Symbolic and Imaginary Play Development Checklist in ‘Learn to Play’ by Karen Stagnitti (1998). Since writing this book the author has created the ‘ Pretend Play Enjoyment Development Checklist (PPE-DC) (2017) . The Play In Early Childhood Evaluation System (PIECES) (2014) is a screening tool that includes training videos (although some of the intervention strategies do not align with current research). Learning Language and Loving It, Weitzman and Greenberg (2002) is a great resource for early child hood educators and contains some general information on the progression of pretend play. Other general developmental checklists and speech and language checklists will usually include some pretend play skills.

To foster pretend play in an education setting, there needs to be plenty of free time, space, opportunities and ‘tools’. Nearly any toy or object can be incorporated into pretend play. Toys for pretend play should be as simple as possible. One can not ‘shhhh’ water out of a teapot when it makes a gurgling sound for you. Have plenty of ‘mystery’ items amongst your pretend play toys like blocks, sticks, cardboard boxes, stones, flax that could encourage children to substitute for missing items in their play. Invite culturally and linguistically diverse families to give ideas as to what might be familiar items /dress ups to include in pretend play corners.

As adults our first role is to observe what children are doing in their play and if you decide to join in, start with what the child or children are doing. It helps to gather your own set of similar toys. If the child is feeding a dinosaur from a teapot, grab your own dinosaur and your own teapot. Keep the play going until the child stops engaging or stops having fun. Add one new skill or idea to the play at a time. This can sound easier than it is. Take the example above. If I then got a cup and started ‘pouring’ into the cup and then fed the dinosaur from the cup, I have made a lot of changes, instead I could take a cup and feed the dinosaur with the cup. All I have changed is the container being used to feed the dinosaur. Allow time for the child to copy if they wish and allow time for them to initiate their own new idea. This is important as we are aiming to develop the child’s ability to initiate their own play-ideas

Some children may need more encouragement to engage in pretend play. It is best to start where they are, model pretend play during their favourite activity rather than trying to move them to a pretend play area. Children with mobility issues or speech and language difficulties may have more trouble moving to an area of interest or joining in with other children. Teachers and aids can encourage pretend play in these children by assisting when they see the child is looking at a particular area of play or watching other children play. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) can be modelled to peers and AAC users during pretend play.

If you would like to learn more about pretend play and how to evaluation and support pretend play in your centres, sign up for the workshop at

Guest Author: Alison Bruce, Speech and Language Therapist

Your Potential Speech and Language Therapy

Alison has spent the last year working in the child development service in Nelson. Prior to that she spent over six years working in a remote area of North West Australia as a generalist speech pathologist. Before moving to Australia Alison worked in both private and public services. This has given her a knowledge of a range of areas of speech and language therapy including early development of communication and early intervention.


Karen Stagnitti’s website

Dramatic Play ideas for families and teachers

Play in Early Childhood Evaluation Sytem –


  1. The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence - Lillard, Angeline S.; Lerner, Matthew D.; Hopkins, Emily J.; Dore, Rebecca A.; Smith, Eric D.; Palmquist, Carolyn M.
  2. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 139(1), Jan 2013, 1-34.
  3. Reynolds, E., Stagnitti, K. & Kidd, E. (2011). Play, language and social skills of children aged 4-6 years attending a play based curriculum school and a traditionally structured classroom curriculum school in low socio-economic areas. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 36 (4), 120-130.
  4. Flags and Building Blocks, Formality and Fun – one hundred years of free kindergarten in New Zealand (1989) Beryl Hughes Free, Kindergarten Union Inc


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