If you have an autistic child, it’s very likely that one of the first things that teachers and clinicians talked to you about is pretend play.

Especially high functioning autism pretend play. It seems that educators really stick with this idea. Why is that? Does it matter if your autistic child can do pretend play?

A young boy with autism engaging in imaginative play with toys in a playroom.

What should you do if they cannot? Let’s dig into that and more.

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And, then after that, I have 14 pretend play ideas for you to print and use.

Also read: 50 Best Teacher and OT Recommended Toys for Autism

What is Pretend Play?

Pretend play, also known as imaginative play, symbolic play, or make-believe play, is a type of play where children use their imagination to create imaginary situations, characters, and scenarios.

During pretend play, children take on roles and act out scenarios that mimic real-life situations or are entirely fantastical. This type of play often involves using objects or toys to represent other objects or people, and it allows children to explore various roles, relationships, and social dynamics.

Playing Pretend

So why does it matter if a child does not engage in pretend play?

Pretend play is crucial for children’s development in several ways:

  1. Cognitive Development: Pretend play helps children develop cognitive skills such as problem-solving, decision-making, and creative thinking. They must use their imagination to create scenarios and come up with solutions within the context of their play.
  2. Language Development: Pretend play encourages language development as children engage in dialogue, negotiate roles, and express their thoughts and feelings. They often invent stories and narratives, which require them to use and understand language in meaningful ways.
  3. Social Development: Pretend play provides opportunities for children to practice social skills such as cooperation, empathy, and perspective-taking. They learn to take on different roles, understand others’ perspectives, and collaborate with peers to create and enact scenarios.
  4. Emotional Development: Pretend play allows children to explore and express their emotions in a safe and controlled environment. They can act out different feelings and learn to regulate their emotions as they navigate various scenarios and interactions.

Pretend play is a natural and essential part of childhood that supports children’s overall development, including cognitive, language, social, and emotional skills. It fosters creativity, imagination, and a deeper understanding of the world around them.

A baby is engaged in pretend play with stuffed animals on a bed, fostering their imagination and creativity.

Age to Expect Pretend Play

Pretend play skills typically begin to emerge in children during the toddler and preschool years, usually around the age of 18 months to 2 years, and continue to develop throughout early childhood. Here’s a general timeline of pretend play development:

  1. 18-24 Months: During this stage, children start engaging in simple forms of pretend play, such as pretending to feed a doll or stuffed animal, talking on a pretend phone, or imitating everyday actions they observe, like cooking or cleaning. Their play may involve basic actions and objects, and they may not fully understand the concept of pretending yet.
  2. 2-3 Years: As children approach their second and third birthdays, their pretend play becomes more elaborate and imaginative. They may start to engage in symbolic play, using objects to represent other objects or people. For example, they might use a block as a phone or pretend a box is a car. They may also begin to incorporate imaginative scenarios and storytelling into their play.
  3. 3-4 Years: At this stage, children’s pretend play becomes even more complex and imaginative. They may start to take on different roles and characters in their play, such as pretending to be a firefighter, a doctor, or a superhero. Their play may involve more elaborate storylines and involve multiple characters or settings.
  4. 4-6 Years: As children approach kindergarten age, their pretend play skills continue to develop, becoming more sophisticated and interactive. They may engage in cooperative pretend play with peers, taking on roles and collaborating to create and act out imaginative scenarios. Their play may involve more abstract concepts and imaginative worlds, and they may begin to understand and use symbolism more effectively.

It’s important to note that the development of pretend play skills can vary widely among children. Some children may show a strong interest in imaginative play from an early age, while others may take longer to develop these skills or may prefer other types of play.

My Child Doesn’t Do Pretend Play

While some children may naturally prefer other types of play or activities, such as physical play or solitary play, it’s essential to provide opportunities for all children to engage in pretend play.

Parents, caregivers, and educators can support pretend play by providing open-ended toys, encouraging imaginative play, and participating in these pretend play ideas with children.

If a child consistently avoids or shows no interest in pretend play, it may be worth exploring potential underlying issues or barriers and finding ways to encourage and support their development in this area.

Pretend Play and Autism

Children with autism may engage in pretend play differently or show less interest in it altogether. Here’s how pretend play may manifest in children with autism and some considerations:

  1. Limited Pretend Play Skills: Many children may have difficulty with imaginative play. They may struggle to engage in pretend scenarios, such as pretending to be characters or role-playing everyday activities. This may or may not be indicative of autism.
  2. Literal Thinking: Children with autism may have a tendency towards literal thinking, which can make it challenging for them to understand and engage in pretend play. They may have difficulty grasping the concept of pretending to be someone or something else, as well as understanding abstract ideas or imaginary situations.
  3. Sensory Sensitivities: Some autistic children have sensory sensitivities that can affect their ability to engage in pretend play. Certain sensory experiences, such as certain textures, sounds, or movements, may be overwhelming or uncomfortable for them, making it difficult to fully participate in imaginative pretend play ideas.
  4. Difficulty with Social Interaction: Pretend play often involves social interaction and cooperation with others. Children with autism may struggle with understanding social cues, which can impact their ability to engage in collaborative pretend play with peers.
  5. Individual Differences: It’s essential to recognize that autistics are individuals, and their preferences and abilities can vary widely. While some children with autism may show little interest in pretend play, others may enjoy certain aspects of it or engage in imaginative activities in their own unique way.

Pragmatic Language and Pretend Play

Pretend play requires the person to have pragmatic language skills, which we know many autistic children struggle with.

Pragmatic language refers to the social use of language in communication. It involves the ability to use language for different purposes, such as greeting others, asking for information, expressing emotions, and engaging in conversation.

Pragmatic language also includes understanding and following the social rules of communication, such as taking turns, staying on topic, using appropriate tone and volume, and interpreting nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language.

Pragmatic language skills are essential for effective communication and social interaction. They enable individuals to navigate various social situations, understand the intentions and perspectives of others, and convey their own thoughts and feelings appropriately. Much of this is a part of pretend play, which is why a lack of pretend play skills can be indicative of autism.

Some common pragmatic language difficulties include:

  1. Difficulty with Turn-Taking: Individuals may struggle to take turns during conversations, leading to interruptions or dominating the conversation.
  2. Lack of Topic Maintenance: They may have difficulty staying on topic or shifting topics smoothly during a conversation.
  3. Literal Interpretation: Difficulty understanding humor, sarcasm, idioms, and figurative language, leading to confusion or misinterpretation.
  4. Limited Use of Nonverbal Cues: Difficulty interpreting and using nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, gestures, and body language to convey meaning or understand others’ intentions.
  5. Inappropriate Use of Language: Difficulty using language appropriately for different social contexts, such as using informal language in formal situations or inappropriate language in polite conversation.
  6. Difficulty with Perspective-Taking: Difficulty understanding others’ perspectives, intentions, or emotions, leading to challenges in empathy and social understanding.

Pragmatic language skills develop gradually over time through exposure to social interactions and language-rich environments. Some individuals may experience difficulties with pragmatic language due to developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or specific language impairment (SLI), among others.

Speech-language therapy, social skills training, and structured interventions can help individuals improve their pragmatic language skills and navigate social interactions more effectively.

A little girl engaging in pretend play with a dog while wearing a stethoscope.

Pretend Play Ideas PDF

With these engaging pretend play activities, children can explore various roles and environments, fostering empathy and understanding of the world around them.

Sure, you can use anything around the house or toys, but if you’re looking for something different and free, here you go.

Pretend play does not have to be expensive, or require any purchases at all!

A little girl engaging in pretend play while sitting in a cardboard box.
Playing with boxes is often a part of pretend play.

Camping Pretend Play

You can download and print these materials here: Camping Pretend Play

A collection of camping worksheets featuring a tent and various items, perfect for pretend play or seeking inspiration for fun camping ideas.

Dental Pretend Play

Here is the link for: Pretend Play Dentist

Explore exciting dental pretend play ideas for kids.

Eye Doctor Pretend Play

Click Here to get: Eye Doctor Pretend Play

Explore imaginative play with eye doctor stationery and unleash exciting pretend ideas.

Fire Station Pretend Play

You can download and print: Firefighter Pretend Play

Fire station pretend play ideas.

Flower Shop Pretend Play

So adorable, download and print here: Flower Shop Pretend Play

Ideas for pretend play with a flower shop play set.

Garden Pretend Play

You can always combine this with a sensory activity that includes dirt and seeds. Get the printable Pretend Play Garden.

A picture of tulips in the background, sparking ideas for pretend play adventures.

Laundry Pretend Play

What a great way to introduce a child to helping with laundry. This make great language activities too: Pretend Play Laundry

Laundry dramatic play set for interactive pretend play ideas.

Library Pretend Play

Follow up this pretend play activity with a trip to the library: Library Pretend Play

Pretend play at the library with various pretend play ideas.

Pharmacy Pretend Play

Good grief, I am at the pharmacy all the time! Pharmacy Pretend Play

A collection of cards and a sign to spark inventive pretend play ideas.

Post Office

I love that we can walk to our post office. Not everyone can do that. My boys loved putting letters in the slot when they were little. Post Office Pretend Play

A poster showcasing imaginative play ideas for pretend play enthusiasts, featuring a vibrant post office setting.

School Pretend Play

Who doesn’t love “playing school?” A classic! School Pretend Play

A teacher's pre-play with pretend play ideas and other items.

Vet Pretend Play

Better to have pretend animals than real ones, sometimes. Veterinarian Pretend Play

Ideas for a vet clinic pretend play sheet.

X-ray Pretend Play

I love this one, because lying still or standing still for an x-ray is a real challenge for us. Pretend Play X-Rays

Pretend play ideas featuring a nurse with x rays.

Zoo Pretend Play

Perfect pre and post play activity for a trip to the zoo: Zoo Pretend Play

A zoo pretend play with interesting ideas and various animals.

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