5 Ways to Encourage Pretend Play {plus ideas for special needs} via Under God's Mighty Hand

5 Ways to Encourage Pretend Play {including ideas for special needs}

Give my son an educational toy, and he will explore it and come up with creative ways to manipulate and move it. But, ask him to pretend to be like something or move like another thing, and that’s a challenge.

Pretend play doesn’t come naturally to him, whether that’s because of his special needs or just because it’s him.

As many parents observe and professionals know, pretend play helps develop the whole child, as well as offer a fun aspect of childhood. Pretend play:

-boosts social skills,

-allows children to learn new skills or knowledge through kinesthetic movement,

-offers opportunity to practice speech,

-increases exposure to and understanding of varying emotions.

(Check out this interesting article from Psychology Today on pretend play and this article from Scholastic.)

If your child doesn’t initiate pretend play, what ways can we increase opportunities for pretend play?

5 Ways to Encourage Pretend Play {plus ideas for special needs} via Under God's Mighty Hand

5 Ways to Encourage Pretend Play

  1. Parallel pretend play – This strategy involves a good bit of modeling. Either I pretend first, and then ask my son to join me, or I offer opportunities for my son to follow another child’s pretend play. Even copying someone else’s pretend play helps build a bank of ideas for your child to utilize later.
  2. Pretend to be animals – Pretending to be animals seems to be a first motivator for many children. Many children with speech delays may make animal sounds early on in speech development. Add in some basic animal-like movements, and you can build a base for pretending.
  3. Pretend play everyday activities – My kids love to play in their pretend kitchen. My son is especially interested in copying what Momma and Daddy do lately. He wants to sweep the floor or even runs to his kitchen to “fix dinner” right before we sit down to eat. This kind of pretend play both practices real life skills and allows for creativity and exploration.
    5 Ways to Encourage Pretend Play {plus ideas for special needs} via Under God's Mighty Hand
  4. Pretend play following a favorite show or movie – My son really responds to this kind of pretend play. When he watches a favorite character pretending to dance like a gorilla, he loves to jump up and dance that way, too. We also will watch a video, then act out the events of the show through gross motor pretend play or with manipulatives. When we watched the Olympics last year, I set up an activity to pretend with right after viewing events like the hurdles.
    5 Ways to Encourage Pretend Play {plus ideas for special needs} via Under God's Mighty Hand
    Recently, we watched the move Jericho: The Promise Fulfilled by Shatterpoint Entertainment. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this video in exchange for my honest review. See full disclosure at the end of the post.) This video is one big instance of pretend play! Jericho acts out the basic scenes of Joshua 2-6 and the battle at Jericho using lego* building bricks. This 28-minute stop-action movie uses corny and fun humor to provide entertainment while sharing the Jericho story. The sets they constructed for this movie are rather impressive and very aesthetically pleasing. The story itself follows the basic actions within the Bible, using some verses as lines and some improvised, modern conversation.

    5 Ways to Encourage Pretend Play {plus ideas for special needs} via Under God's Mighty Hand

    One of the sets in the Jericho film

    My son especially got “into” the movie when I grabbed his children’s bibles and flipped to the pages about Jericho. We paused the movie, read a few lines, then watched that part of the story in the movie. After watching the video, we made our own (very simple) Jericho and pretended marching and climbing the walls (see top photo). (Using multiple contexts seems to capture his attention.) He cracked up at the blooper reel in the bonus features. Shatterpoint Entertainment is a family operated business and the kids actually began creating these stop-action movies as a homeschool project! Parents will find the story behind the movies (shared in the bonus features) fascinating. Find out more about Jericho: The Promise Fulfilled and watch a trailer at their website here!

  5. Repeat, repeat, repeat – Since pretend play is challenging for my son, I have to remember he might not pick it up after just one exposure. The more we incorporate small instances of pretend play in our day, the more frequently he attempts it on his own.

My son has finally begun to initiate pretend play, though he usually still joins in or follows modeled behavior first. Seeing his creativity surface makes me excited!

How do you foster pretend play with your preschoolers and special needs children? Share your ideas in the comments!

*Note: Lego is a trademark of the LEGO Group, which does not sponsor, support, nor endorse this film.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of the Jericho film in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

This post is also linked up with The Homeschool Village’s Ultimate Homeschool Link-UpHomeschool Creation’s Preschool and Kindergarten Corner, In Lieu of Preschool’s Tuesday Tots, UpsideDown Homeschooling’s Hearts for Home linkup, and the Weekly Kids Co-op at B-Inspired Mama.

The Homeschool Village

10 thoughts on “5 Ways to Encourage Pretend Play {including ideas for special needs}

  1. Kirstylee Cassidy

    I just love this post so much! Pretend play is so important and these are fantastic ideas to encourage pretend play. Thanks for the post!

  2. Anna - The Measured Mom

    This is a great post! Thanks for recognizing that pretend play doesn’t come as easily to some kids – that’s definitely true in our family. I’ll refer to this list for sure!

  3. Monika mendiratta

    Hi my son who is 2 and half years old doesn’t initiate or seem to be at all knowing what pretend play is and when I encourage him to be into some activity like doll play he doesn’t like it and ignores or doesn’t oarticipate at all… I am very bothered as to how to build it up or how to even initiate. I just don’t know what will draw his interest. He’s very good at puzzle solving but preten play would be his weakest area and thereby he’s not able to relate too much with real world or get life skills.
    Please help me by letting me know where n how to begin with..what strategies… Help of any kind would be much appreciated.


    1. Caroline Post author

      Hi, Monika – Thanks for coming by. My son didn’t begin pretend play until he was 3 years old and that was mostly parallel play, and he didn’t really *initiate* his own pretend play ideas until he was 5 years old. I understand. I think the first three ideas I listed in this post seem to help entice kids the most – animals, everyday play (like kitchen play), and parallel play. Perhaps one of the biggest aspects is parallel play. My son often needed me (and then his sister) to *show* him what pretend play looked like over and over first, then he’d copy, until finally years later he plays his own ways.
      Also, this post from the Love That Max blog has some ‘why’ behind pretend play, but also a couple of ideas that might be helpful: http://www.lovethatmax.com/2013/06/8-ways-pretend-play-can-help-kids-with.html. And this post has several ‘every day activity’ pretend play ideas: http://www.notimeforflashcards.com/2012/03/25-easy-pretend-play-ideas.html
      I hope this helps!


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