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The Power of Pretend Play

By Lisa Di Ciero

Reflect on your childhood years – what did you love to play?

As I look back, I remember playing shopkeepers with my neighbours, debating over who would take the lead role as the shopkeeper and who would take on the customer role. It involved disagreements, turn-taking, problem-solving, and listening and at times ended in tears.

Looking back, it’s fascinating to consider how important engaging in play scenarios such as this, supported the growth and development of foundational skills to build on in future. 

Development of Play

Play is the primary occupation for children; when they engage in play, they develop skills as lifelong players.

It provides children with different sensory, cognitive, and physical experiences and builds connections in the brain to support their growth and development.

Play is powerful for developing skills in children such as emotional regulation, language, social skills, problem-solving and understanding a narrative. It develops the brain’s executive control centre, where the brain regulates emotions, solves problems and makes plans.

The Impact of Pretend Play

Research highlights the correlation of pretend play on expressive and receptive language skills. Play provides an opportunity for children to practice and learn new skills within a safe and supportive environment. It supports a child’s cognitive development. This is reflected through the stages of play, which include sensory exploration, repetitive play, constructive play, purposeful problem solving, and developing an awareness of objects’ functional and physical properties. Cognitive play involves the development and recognition of toys or objects being substituted for something else, and includes the use of ‘pretend’ objects.

At the same time that play is developing cognitively, it supports social development. A process of increasing socialization as the child begins to grow and develop. Children begin by learning cause and effect and exploration of themselves. This then shifts to noticing others in their play, playing alongside others, and eventually joining in their play. This joint connection in play provides an opportunity for problem-solving, competitive, and cooperative play. It encourages children to consider others’ play ideas- which can sometimes present as a challenge.

Social Play Development in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Children with disabilities are at risk of not developing complex play skills that support them to engage in activities such as interacting with friends and conversing with others. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may show delay in their development of social play which may include areas such as shared attention, emotional regulation, interactions with others and pretend play. Often play can be repetitive, with less interest to engage with others. It is often the social aspects of pretend play such as the functional and symbolic play, which may impact on social interaction and flexible thinking.

Teaching social play, involving play with others, parallel play and joint attention, promotes spontaneous engagement, which builds on a child’s self-awareness, memory, motivation, problem-solving and self-control.

How can Occupational Therapists Help?

Occupational therapists (OTs) working within paediatrics, take a closer look into the ways children interact with their world, often through a variety of play-based activities. As OTs we play a key role in supporting the development of play through building a child’s attention, interaction and exploration of toys or items. We work alongside the child’s supports to promote a collaborative approach to build on their skills. OTs can assist by building on the child’s interests, modelling language, gestures and interactions. As children get older, their play interests may change. This can include cause-and-effect play, constructive play, physical play and pretend play. OTs may use play as a way to support a child’s skill development of emotional regulation, fine and gross motor skills and social skills. We play a role in upskilling the child’s family and supports to continue building a child’s engagement in imaginative play.

Fostering the Imagination

As the research suggests, engagement in pretend play during early childhood promotes skills we use in everyday life. It provides an opportunity for children to dig into their imagination. Over the years, we have seen technology advance and an increase in opportunities for children to engage in screen time. Whilst this has brought along many benefits, it’s important for children to have a suitable balance to ensure their skills are continuing to be explored and challenged.

Play is recognized as a key element of development. Therefore, deserves the time to nurture and practice that growth.


Jordan, R. (2003). Social play and autistic spectrum disorders: A perspective on theory, implications and educational approaches. The National Autistic Society. Vol 7 (4), 347-360.

Stagnitti, K., O’Connor C., Sheppard, L. (2012). Impact of the Learn to Play program on play, social competence, and language for children aged 5-8 years who attend a special school. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 59, 302-311.

Play and autistic children- https://raisingchildren.net.au/autism/school-play-work/play-learning/play-asd. Accessed October 2022.

About the author

Lisa is the Clinical Excellence Lead for KEO Care’s paediatric division. She has experience working in a range of paediatric environments, including schools, clinics, and most recently the community. Lisa has a wealth of experience working with kids and teenagers on the autism spectrum, and she has stayed passionate about and interested in this field.