Day 8: Pretend Play

by | Adapt & Modify Activities

Does viewing images of children playing make-believe just blow you away?  If you’re like me, you are probably left speechless at the creativity of children.  They can make things out of a cardboard box and play for hours changing it from a lemonade stand to a puppet theatre to a tee-pee.  Meanwhile, your child will take the cardboard and flap it in front of his face for hours on end, if you’d let him.

The ideas for imaginative play found on Pinterest are not only stunning, but they’re limitless.  This post explains why imaginative play may be difficult for your child and will give you tips to helping him get there.


pretend play screenshot

You will never run-out of ideas for pretend play on Pinterest. Don’t let them discourage you, however.

Why pretend play may be a challenge for neurodiverse and disabled children

  • If a child is not engaging in imaginary play, he is not developmentally at this stage of play yet.
  • Since pretend play contains a social component to it (even if playing alone), children with social difficulties will not easily engage in this type of play.
  • Children with cognitive delays may not understand what to do with certain toys unless they are shown.
  • Children with language delays may not have the words to use during pretend play.


Suggestions for adaptations/ modifications for imaginary play

Play is huge for all types of development: language, fine and gross motor, cognitive, etc.  Just because you think your child can’t play a certain toy/ game does not mean that he eventually won’t. It also doesn’t mean you should wait around until he does. There are things you can do to build a child up to the imaginative play stage.

It’s possible that your child won’t ever be able to engage in pretend play the way other children do.  However, keep trucking away at the prerequisites for this stage just the same.  There is so much learning going on with play, you don’t ever want to underestimate the growth that occurs from what is seemingly just fun.  Kindergarten classrooms wouldn’t include playtime in their program if it wasn’t an integral element for learning.

  • Know which stage of play your child is at.  The four main stages are: sensory play (child explores a rattle), functional play (child realizes if he pushes a button, the toy does something), problem solving (puzzles, construction toys) and pretend play (recreating experiences).  If your child is in the functional play stage, then you know you’ll need to introduce puzzles and shape sorters before ever expecting him to engage in fantasy play.  There are many more micro-stages within each of these stages, so speak with your child’s occupational therapist to get the full list. Together, confirm where your child is on the play continuum.
  • Let your child observe you in your daily activities.  Too often, we tend to keep our kids occupied while we tackle daily chores.  It’s true that it’s not possible to always have our child around for safety reasons.  Sometimes, there are time constraints.  As much as possible, have your child around to take in what you’re doing.  Talk aloud as you do: “I’ll set the table.  I need four dishes, four forks, and four glasses.”  The goal is to eventually have your child imitate you during play.  Observations don’t have to be for the duration of your meal prep.  Five minutes daily can make a huge difference over time.  Don’t forget all the places in the house besides the kitchen where your child can observe you in daily chores: in the laundry room while putting in a load of laundry, the bathroom while brushing your teeth, etc.
  • Offer a variety of open-ended toys.  While light-up, push-buttons toys are great for fine motor development, they don’t do much for language and imaginative play since the toys tend to do all the talking for your child.  A plastic or wooden dish set at a small table is a simple invitation to get your child to imitate you setting the table.  If your child isn’t standing or walking yet, you can bring the toys to him and repeat your routine together at his usual seat. (Note: There is a detailed post coming up in this series on toy suggestions for children with special needs).
block play - prerequisite to pretend play

Irregular-shaped blocks make for great open-ended toys. They could be bridges with a car set, chairs and table for a doll house, a gnome village, etc.

puppets for pretend play

Puppets, stuffed toys, and dolls are all open-ended toys that spark the imagination, but also get language going through play.

  • Have a dress-up box.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate.  A couple of silk scarves and a few old hats are perfect.  Even if your child doesn’t use them for dress-up play, have them ready for the tip below.
  • Model.  You don’t have to do it for long, but do take some time to play with your child.  It’s the best way to model what one does with a dish set and those scarves.  Model the words to use as well: “Set table,” “Four dishes,” or “Mmmm, eat!”
  • Don’t be afraid to get silly. The best interactions happen in those moments because the unexpected captures the attention of the child. The other day, I took a pair of my son’s jeans I was folding and put it over my head like a hat. I had never done that before and didn’t know how he’d react, or if he’d even notice that it’s not an expected thing to do.  I got a giggle out of my little guy that had me laughing, too!  “Silly Mama!” I repeated.  I go back to that phrase each time I do something out of the ordinary.  When we play, I model the use of “silly” when his toys do something unusual.

What is your best tip for adaptations for play?

Are you enjoying the ideas in this series? We can get more in-depth in a one-on-one consultation!


More Resources

Continue reading my essays, activities, and case studies for supporting the education of disabled/chronically ill and neurodivergent children.