Not yet playing imaginatively? No pretend play yet? No worries...
Does your child seem stuck playing the same games? Have you tried bringing out the costumes, pretend kitchen toys, and vehicles, with no luck? This might mean your child is still mastering his current play stage, or it might mean he could use your help getting to the next stage. Before I get into some ideas for helping your child enter the pretend play stage, let's first talk about the different stages of play every child needs to work through.
Although there are many different versions of the stages of play, I've compressed them into 3 simple categories: 1) Sensory 2) Parallel & Cause-Effect and 3) Social Imaginative. See examples below. Note, this is a very simplified way to look at play, and there are many more subcategories between and within each of these stages.
Below is a shot from our C.A.R.E. for Parents course, where we dive deep into helping you discover your child's play stage, as well as how to help boost your child's play skills to move up the ladder.
As you can see in the above chart, there are a lot of play skills needed before a child naturally enters the imaginative play stage. It is important to remember not to rush or skip any of the developmental play milestones. If your child plays mainly in the sensory stage, you'll want to make sure to allow him time to explore in this stage as long as he wants. You can always model play ideas from the cause-effect stage to help expand on his ideas, but don't attempt to stop the activities that grab your child's interest at the moment. Always think about it as expanding on rather than ending/leaving a stage of play. In fact, some of your child's interest in the earlier play stages will likely stick around. Just because a child starts to pretend play, doesn't mean he will give up playing with sand or water.
3 Ways to Build Up to Imaginative Play:
1) Trial by error! How do you know when your child is ready to enter a new play stage? Give it a try, model some new ideas using the same toys, themes, activities; and let's see what happens. If she shows interest, attempts to imitate, or joins in your play, then YES! it looks like she is ready. You might even see your child naturally entering a new play stage on her own!
2) Use animal friends. Children don't always respond to playing imaginatively with an adult or another child, but might be more intrigued to see their favorite stuffed animal or toy car pretend to sleep or eat his snack. Let him take an animal to bed or to the bathtub, because these companions may actually turn into his first playmates.
3) Act out familiar routines. Household chores, reading bedtime stories, bath time, etc. Even better, act out a familiar disciplinary routine. It's amazing how funny kids can think it is to see you or a toy being put into time out or being told not to do something. Make it familiar; if you normally tell your child not to climb onto the counter, or to eat all of his food before dessert, try doing the same to his animal friend. If you make his teddy bear misbehave, you may get quite a laugh! "No, no Teddy, don't do that!" And now you've got the makings of a fun pretend scenario.
Pretend play should be social and interactive, but if he starts playing imaginatively with stuffed animals, then that's a great start! Try to join in as much as possible, and always keep expanding. If you want more ideas about how to expand on your child's specific play skills, don't hesitate to reach out.