5 Stages Of Pretend Play In Early Childhood

Einstein had once famously quoted on how knowledge could only get you from A to Z, while imagination can get you everywhere else. Children, with their limited motor skills and geographical extent, learn to create an imaginary world of their own in their immediate surroundings. Thus begins the Pretend play by the child in his or her early childhood. The creativity sparks of these early stages can be carried even into adulthood. Thus it is important to identify the traits of each stage and nurture them as and when we can.

Stage 1: Solitary play (3 months to 2 years)

Solitary play

‘Pretence’ at this stage has usually not started completely, but the child is rather presenting the knowledge he or she already has. For example, the child may pick up a bowl and pretend to eat out of it.

The child thus begins to imitate the behavior around him. For example, the child may pick up a comb and bring it close to their head.

At this stage, a sustained interest in a particular toy may last for 60 seconds and more. The child is generally disinterested in interacting with other children in the surroundings and is comfortable in solitary play.

Psychologists believe that we re-enact the solitary stage when we need time alone in our adulthood to recharge ourselves.

There is no elaborate play at the stage and the child is just exploring and enacting his surroundings.

Stage 2: Observer’s Play ( 12 months to 2 years)

Observer's Play

At this stage, the child starts to notice other children around him or her, although they or may not engage in involved play with them.

The child also brings an element of symbolism to his play. That is, he or she may use a symbolic object like a spoon, to imitate a real object, like a comb to enact an act of fixing their hair.

This use of symbolic objects in place of real objects marks a huge leap in their ‘thinking capabilities’.

At this stage, we may surround the child with simple daily life objects like a spoon, a bowl, or a comb to initiate their critical thinking skills as to how the objects can be put to use.

Stage 3: Parallel Play (2 years plus)

Parallel Play

The child will now be comfortable playing in proximity to other children. The child may also be comfortable in sharing resources with the other child, although elaborate cooperative play will not occur yet.

However, the child will move out of an ‘egocentric view’ of visualizing his surroundings, and start acknowledging the presence of others.

At the same time, the child will start attaching a dual meaning to different objects around him, that is, the real meaning and the imaginary meaning. For example, from the earlier example, the child will know that the object in his hand is a spoon and at the same time is a comb while he plays with it.

This dual representation of objects is again an important marker of the development of critical thinking abilities.

At this stage, a child should be surrounded by simple toys to encourage them to make choices. This will also help them in developing a ‘sense of agency’. However, make sure to not put too many toys or too complex toys in front of the child so that they don’t get confused.

Try to play with the child with the toy of their choice, which will be the baby steps to giving them controlled freedom of choice.

Stage 4: Associate Play (3 to 4 years)

Associate Play

In this stage, the child starts forming a logical sequence for his play, although it is not elaborate. For example, the child may present you with a cup of tea and then give you an imaginary plate of biscuits. The child also actively starts interacting with the children around him or her, however, the association is not to the next level of cooperative play.
The child also starts establishing memory skills. The observing and mimicking also continue.

Stage 5: Cooperative play (4 years onwards)

Cooperative play

At this stage, the child begins playing with children with a common goal and objective, and an elaborate sequencing of gameplay occurs. For example, the child may stage a teacher-student play with defined roles for each child.

Also, the child searches the surroundings to collect appropriate props for his play and assigns definite meaning to each prop.

This planned play marks the development of social skills in a child and is an act of socialization.

The parents at this stage can subtly help the child in developing appropriate social skills like teamwork, cooperation, and turn-taking as well as leadership qualities.


Pretend play is when your child’s baby steps into the real world that is beyond his mother’s and father’s protective glance. It is an initiation into the world of socialization, memory and association, of cooperation and competition, and much more. We primarily have to be a spectator in these rites of passage, however a nudge here and there can ensure the right direction for your child.

G H Mead, a prominent child psych-sociologists believes that these interactions of ‘I’ and ‘Me’ in the child, that is, the egocentric and society-centric point of view, are what help the child find his or her place in society.

Leave a Comment