Pretend Play & Language Development: A ‘How To’ Guide For 1-6yrs

by Lynn Carson
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With Halloween right around the corner my kiddos are already in extreme dress-up mode! There are clothes, hats, toy food and trucks all over my floors….and I love it! It is priceless to watch their imaginations flourish as they create their own unique play scenarios or recreate something they have watched me do at home.

As a speech-language pathologist, I know that pretend play goes with language development like peanut butter goes with jam! I also know that pretend play is a skill that develops, just like gross or fine motor skills, and children need the opportunity to ‘practice’ this skill each day.

Although it is wonderful (and healthy even) to let kids pretend on their own, allowing us parents a chance to get a few things done, it is very important that we engage in these pretend play schemes with them too.

Research tells us that:

  • There is a relationship between play skills and word use in young children
  • Play skills typically lag behind in children with language disorders
  • Play contains a variety of elements that stimulate the kinds of conditions that grow language
  • Children who engage in play with attentive and responsive adults will improve their language skills
  • Children become more able to take advantage of opportunities to learn through play as they become more advanced learners and social partners

Most parents I meet are really eager to engage in pretend play with their kids, however in my practice I have heard many express that they don’t know exactly how or what to do.

So let’s begin with the ‘what’ and learn the developmental milestones your child should be meeting for pretend play from ages 1-6 years.

1 – 2 years

  • Imitates common routines during play related to self (e.g., pretends to drink with a cup, sweep the floor or talk on the phone, etc.)
  • Pretend play activities are single actions that could be repeated many times (e.g., bang a hammer, push a car, etc.)
  • Play is usually solitary or parallel to another person

2 – 3 years

  • Talks aloud during play
  • Relates pretend play actions to another person or object (e.g., feeds the teddy, combs the doll’s hair, etc.)
  • Acts out simple pretend play sequences (e.g., puts the man on the truck, drives the truck to the garage, takes the man out of the truck)

3 – 4 years

  • Dramatization and imagination enter pretend play
  • Play schemes become more elaborate and sophisticated and may include peers
  • Uses objects in pretend that may not be their specific use (e.g. uses a stick as a ‘spoon’ to stir)

4 – 5 years

  • Dramatization and imagination become even more elaborate
  • Play schemes may carry-over from day-to-day
  • Uses a variety of items and environments in pretend

5 – 6 years

  • Builds extensive pretend play scenarios
  • Includes peers in pretend play
  • Uses props and language to develop characters and themes

Remember, these ages are just guidelines. Some children may do things a little earlier or later than others and that is ok. However, if they are not exhibiting the expected play milestones by the end of the age range, you may want to contact an SLP.

Now that we know what to expect our kids to do at different stages, let’s move on to ‘how’ to engage with them to build language skills. Here are a few steps to follow no matter what stage of pretend play your child is at:

Step 1: Get organized! Check out the toys you have at home. See if they match the play level and interests of your child. Try to introduce new items to keep things fresh. This could mean putting some toys away and rotating them out through the year or getting inspired online with new ideas on how to make pretend play items from household objects.

Step 2: Observe your child’s play! Take a few moments to stop, watch and find out what your child is interested in and what their pretend play is about. Think about what THEY might like you to do with them in this play scheme.

Step 3: Join in! This means getting down on the floor, face-to-face with your child and giving them your full attention. For older children you can ask them if you can play and let them assign you a role. For younger children (who may not love to share their toys!) grab a similar toy to what they have and begin by imitating what they are doing in their play.

Step 4: Let the child be the leader! It is their pretend play and the most important thing is it should be fun! Nothing is less fun than being directed by someone else (e.g., “Put the car here”, “Let’s feed the doll now”, etc.) or answering test questions while you play (e.g., “Where is the blue truck?”, “What does the train say?”, etc.). Try making simple comments about what you and/or your child are doing instead. If you feel play is stalling or going nowhere, then by all means, offer a new idea by way of a choice question, (e.g. “Should the truck crash or drive?” “Should the princess be stuck in the tower or stay in the castle?”). This way your child can still take the lead in the play but you are facilitating the interaction and keeping the play going.

Step 5: Add language as you play! This should be done in a clever way so that kids don’t realize they are learning and just focus on the fun! Here are two ways to do this:

  1. Choose one or two new vocabulary words to introduce that go along with the play routine and are appropriate for your child’s language level. Repeat them several times during the play and use gestures and actions to model the meaning.
  2. Expand on what your child says during play. You do this by repeating what they said, however, you add one new piece of information. For example, a 2 year old might say, “Truck crash!” Then you would say, “The truck crashes into the tower!” An older child might say, “This princess is the good one and she takes care of all the animals.” Then you might say, “Ok this princess is the good one who takes care of the animals to protect them from harm.”

Step 6: Challenge your child’s problem solving and critical thinking skills! During play don’t always solve the problem when something goes wrong. Don’t be the first to come up with new ideas all the time. Wait (which is the hardest part!) and give them those extra moments to think on their own of what to do next.

Pretend play is not only important to healthy language development, but it is a quintessential part of being a child. Try and find 3-4 times per week that you can engage in pretend play with your child before they outgrow this very special stage.


First Years: Professional Development Through Distance Education. (2009). Developmental milestones: Birth to 8 years. Retrieved online October 14, 2015:

Paul, R. Language Disorders From Infancy Through Adolescence. 3rd ed. St. Louis, MI: Mosby Elsevier, 2007.

Pro-ed inc. (n.d.). The Importance of Play: Speech and Language Development Chart. 2nd ed.

Skolnick Weisberg, D., Zosh, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Michnick Folinkoff, R. (2013). Play, Language Development and the Role of Adult Support. American Journal of Play 6 (1) 39-54.

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