Creativity and Pretend Play

How make-believe fosters creativity.

As Willy Wonka put it, 'There is no life I know, to compare to pure imagination …' Watch children at play and they know how to pretend. In fact, they're masters at make-believe! If you want your child to be creative – to produce original ideas, inventions, art, music, etc. - one of the best things you can do is support and encourage them in playing imaginatively. When it comes to fostering creativity, pretend play is where it's at!

What is creativity?

Put simply, creativity is the ability to create or discover something new. As such, all children are highly creative as they discover and begin to put meaning to the world around them. When discussing creativity it is important to distinguish between the creative product and the creative process, particularly when discussing creativity in children. A creative product is an artwork, design, scientific discovery, poem, musical composition, etc., that is unique, novel and original. It may also be useful, adaptive and aesthetically pleasing.

The creative process is the cognitive, social and emotional processes that occur within an individual when they are engaged in the creative act. Children regularly engage in the creative process. If a discovery is new to the thinker, even though it had already occurred to someone else, then it is a creative act. Children are constantly exploring, making discoveries that are new to them as individuals and engaging in the creative process. Children are therefore highly creative individuals.

Creativity and pretend play

During early childhood, the cognitive and affective (processing and expression of emotions/feelings) processes required for creativity begin to emerge and develop. Play is essential for healthy child development (see The importance of play; How babies and young children learn; Physical activity) and has a particular role to play in the development of creativity.

The most obvious example of creativity in childhood is pretend play, sometimes called symbolic play, imaginative play or dramatic play. Pretend play is characterised by 'as if'; using an object as if it were something else, the fantasy of pretending as if you are someone else or as if you exist in some other time and place. In pretend play, your child knowingly and intentionally projects an imaginary alternative over the present reality in the spirit of play.

Many of the cognitive and affective processes important for pretend play are also found in creative individuals. By engaging in pretend play children develop cognitive and social-emotional skills associated with creativity, including divergent thinking (a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions), transformation abilities (revising known relationships into new patterns and configurations, e.g. pretending a block is a piece of cake), perspective-taking, emotional understanding and control, and problem solving.

Pretend play can be social - a group of children interacting within an alternate reality they have invented, such as 'cops and robbers' or 'dress-ups' - or it can be a solo activity, where a child plays alone in the imaginary world. Pretend play can involve interaction with objects, such as dolls or action figures, or by projecting imaginary properties onto objects, such as using a banana as if it is a telephone. Pretend play often involves mimicry of the adult world, preparing children for later life.

One researcher refers to pretend play as 'Everyday creativity' – "the originality of everyday life". Everyday creativity is in the moment and often accompanied with joy or deep satisfaction.

The role of pretend play in child development

The relationship between pretend play and child development is poorly understood. Studies are often poorly designed and have few participants. Therefore, there is limited direct evidence of a causal relationship between pretend play and several child development domains. Having said that, there is some evidence that pretend play may have a direct role in the development of language; narrative; cognitive processes such as reasoning, problem solving, attention, organising, planning, and timing; and emotional regulation. There is also evidence that pretend play develops in parallel to creativity, intelligence, conservation (understanding that changing the form of a substance or object does not change its amount, overall volume, or mass) and theory of mind (an awareness that one's thoughts may differ from those of other persons and that there are a variety of perspectives of which each of us is capable). Play can also have a therapeutic function, with some children choosing to act out their fears through play following a traumatic event.

Development of pretend play

Pretend play originates during a child's second year with symbolic acts, for example a toddler pretending to fall asleep. A toddler's use of symbolic acts increases dramatically between 15- and 18-months of age and by the time a child is two years old pretending is in full swing. Two-year-olds spend 5-20% of their playtime engaged in pretend play and will sometimes engage in socio-dramatic pretence (play-acting) with a parent or older sibling. Socio-dramatic play (play-acting) with peers emerges around 4 years of age. Children continue to engage in pretend play until well into middle childhood, with most children ceasing at around 11-12 years old. Some children and even adults never stop engaging in play-acting particularly those who are creatively involved in the arts, such as literature, painting, sculpture, theatre, and film. Parents can encourage pretend play by playing 'as if' with their children and providing many opportunities for open-ended, child-directed play.

As Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia preschools, puts it,

"Children need the freedom to appreciate the infinite resources of their hands, their eyes and their ears, the resources of forms, materials sounds and colours. They need the freedom to realise how reason, thought and imagination can create continuous interweaving of things, and can move and shake the world."

Pretend play in different cultures

While all children engage in some form of pretend play, the amount of time spent engaged in pretend play varies across cultures, as does the nature of pretend play. This is often related to the values and practices of adults in the community, and to ecological features of the child's environment, such as the availability of toys, access to media, etc.

One study found that Taiwanese pre-schoolers are more likely to engage in themes of social routine and proper conduct than American children of the same age, who prefer fantasy themes. Similarly, Korean-American pre-schoolers emphasised family roles in their pretend play, compared to European-American children who engaged more in themes of fantasy and danger. Socioeconomic status and urbanisation also influence pretend play, with fantasy themes more common in children from socioeconomically advantaged, urban families and less common in children experiencing socioeconomic deprivation and living in rural areas.

Some cultures discourage pretence, due to religious or cultural views of pretence as falsehood, influencing the type of pretend play children engage in.


  • Creativity is the ability to create or discover something new to the individual or to society as a whole. All children are highly creative as they discover and begin to put meaning to the world around them.
  • Children are masters at everyday creativity, particularly through pretend play.
  • Pretend play is when children behave 'as if': as if they are superman, as if a banana is a telephone, as if a box is a spaceship travelling to the moon.
  • By engaging in pretend play children develop cognitive and social-emotional skills associated with creativity, including divergent thinking, transformation abilities, perspective-taking, emotional understanding and control, problem solving, etc.
  • By engaging in and encouraging pretend play, parents are supporting their child's development of the creative skills that will help them to succeed in modern life.


  1. Make time: Children need unhurried, unscheduled time to play. Be mindful not to over-schedule or over-busy your child's days; limit their time in front of screens; and don't rush to fill periods of 'boredom'; having nothing to do can spark imaginative play ideas. And once your child is engaged in fantasy, try not to pull them out of it unnecessarily. Also, let your child 'wallow' in things that don't produce an end product or seem to you to have a purpose to you, for example dripping glue or gloop, mixing flour and water or sand and water, playing with sticks in muddy puddles, or spreading paint.
  2. Try not to get sucked in by expensive 'educational' toys. Remember: the simpler the toy, the more complex the play. Simple toys that allow your child to use their creativity and imagination – blocks, a sandpit, boxes, etc. are a great choice!
  3. A large box e.g. a washing-machine or fridge box, will provide hours of imaginative play. Ask your local appliance store to put one aside for you.
  4. Encourage fantasy play by providing dress-up clothes and other props, perhaps in their own special box. There is no need for expensive, ready-made costumes; instead opt for more open-ended pieces, such as hats, keys, scarves, shoes, pieces of material, ties, handbags, aprons, jewellery, purses, coins, cooking utensils, bowls, blankets, dolls, empty paper towel rolls, soft toys, writing materials, old phones, mirrors etc.
  5. Read or tell stories to your child to foster their imagination, and actively listen to the stories they tell you. If your child enjoys it, begin a story, and invite your child to finish it, or take turns giving each other three words, and creating a story from those. "Tell me a story that uses the words, 'motorbike', 'tree' and 'princess'."
  6. Be guided by your child and join in their pretend play if they want you to. Be in the moment and use the language that goes with their game. Take your lead from your child and be careful not to take over and direct proceedings. Remember: you're the actor; they're the director!
  7. Let go of your inner neat-freak. Pretend play doesn't fit conveniently into thirty minute segments so take a deep breath and be ok with leaving your child's 'library' in the living room for a few days to allow the game to run its course. You'll have checked out a lot of different books as lots of different people by the time it's ready to be packed away!
  8. Avoid stereotyping. If your son wants to be the mum or the fairy, let him. Your Role: Join your child's make-believe games (if you're invited, of course), but remember: You should always let her direct the action. "Ruling an imaginary world is comforting to toddlers because the real one seems so big and intimidating to them," says Dr. Healy. "This is their chance be in control." However, it is okay to help your child expand the story, which improves her powers of imagination, says Dr. Bergen. For example, if you and your child are cooking a pretend meal for her stuffed animals, you might say, "Wow, Bunny ate all the delicious soup you gave him. What do you think a rabbit would like to have for dessert?" Your Role: At playtime, provide your toddler with simple toys and props such as dolls, old sheets and blankets, and pots and pans, that he can use in a variety of ways, says Doris Bergen, PhD, professor of educational psychology at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. (As you've probably noticed by now, even a simple cardboard box can keep him entertained for days, so give him that too!). Buying your child anything too realistic, such as a toy cell phone, limits his creativity, since he'll have a difficult time pretending it's something different. If your daughter wants to be the king or the fireman, let her. Play-acting is a way for children to 'walk in someone else's shoes' and imagine what it feels like to be them for a time.
  9. Discuss your child's ideas with them and help them put their ideas into practice. They want to "build a spaceship"? Help them gather together some props to do this. Remember: their imagination is rich; what you end up with doesn't have to fulfil your vision, but theirs.
  10. Sometimes pretend play is more fun with friends. Be proactive in arranging play-dates for your child.
  11. Play along with your child's imagination. If they think they're an 'oviraptor' (an egg-stealing dinosaur) on the hunt for eggs to steal, 'surrender' and hand them an egg container with 'eggs' (stones or similar) in it. If they offer to make afternoon tea for you, sit down and enjoy your 'meal' as you would with a friend; if you're meant to be a patient, visit your 'doctor' with a complaint – talk to them about your sore leg and ask them what they can do to fix you. Remember: anything is possible in the imagination! If you feel awkward pretend-playing, try just observing your child and joining in if or when you feel comfortable. Or sometimes you might feel bored with play-acting. That's ok and entirely normal – there's only so much pretending most of us can do!
  12. You can show your child how to pretend by simply pretending yourself. Pretend you have fallen asleep on your feet like a horse. Pretend you are talking to a dinosaur on the phone. Pretend your child's teddy has asked you to come to tea. Pretend you're a hungry child and you want your 'mum' to feed you.
  13. Encourage your child's inner artist by providing them with blank paper, crayons, finger-paints, felts, scissors, etc. Or they may prefer to construct rather than draw. If this is the case, stock up on staples, glue, tape, card, playdough, clay, papier-mâché etc. You don't need colouring books – creating from scratch is better than colouring between the lines (and less frustrating too!).


Raising Children has a free video library of stories including one on 'Play is Learning'

Brainwave has an interesting article on 'Learning is Child's Play' by Senior Researcher Keryn O'Neill.

Parents and playgroups will find fun play ideas on the New Zealand Ministry of Education website.

Let's Play! is a free parenting app from ZERO TO THREE with fun activities, organised by age, for parents to use to support their young child's early learning - Download from iTunes or Google Play Store.

Pretend Play in Childhood: Foundation of Adult Creativity by Sandra Walker Russ is an academic book on the topic which includes case studies of creative people.

Pinterest has some imaginative pretend play ideas.

A lovely piece by Janet Landsbury about how to get out of the way and allow a child's natural creativity

5x5x5=creativity is an independent arts-based action research organisation which supports children in their exploration and expression of ideas, helping them develop creative skills for life.

Read more on creative development at

Books on pretend play:

Bad Guys Don't Have Birthdays: Fantasy Play at Four (1988) ISBN 978-0-226-64496-7

A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play (2004) ISBN 978-0-226-64489-9

Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner (New Edition, 2014) ISBN 978-0-226-13010-1