I adore the innocence of pretend play, of make believe, of acting out scenes that come to life in a child’s imagination. I love watching kids get lost in their fantasy world. It amuses me watching them mimic and explore this big world by recreating it in play. Pretend play is crucial to a child’s development. While the toys for pretend play can’t be defined, there are toys that can help encourage pretend play.
Unlike many Top 10 lists, this one is going to be a little different, but hopefully very helpful. Rather than providing a list of specific toys to purchase, you’ll get 10 suggestions of toys to enhance pretend play. And they’ll be accompanied by a brief explanation of how playing with these items is beneficial to your child’s development.
So some of the items discussed will be store bought items. In fact, I’ll include some affiliate links to products we love in the text below. However, in pretend play as much as possible it’s best to provide real materials, rather than store-bought toys. A broken or discarded cell phone is better than a toy telephone. Real (but safe) kitchen items are better than plastic play sets.
To start off, here are some good materials that can support a variety of themes and that kids can adapt in their own way. These can include:
- a variety of hats – construction hats, fireman, baseball caps, etc.
- stuffed animals
- purses, wallets, tote bags
- a cash box and play money
- a telephone
- small blankets
- clothing that children can manage independently as a costume
Top 10 Pretend Play Toys
As you read through our list of Top 10 Pretend Play Toys, keep in mind your child’s likes and think about ways that you can enrich their favorite ways to pretend play.
#1 Occupational Role Play Costumes
Kids love dressing up for a reason… it’s their way of learning. At first I thought this would only be true of preschool age children. However, even as my boys advance through elementary school, they still enjoy putting on an old Halloween costume and transforming into their character. It is their chance to walk in another person’s shoes. While children are mimicking the role of a particular person (mom, fireman, farmer, etc.), it helps them understand what someone else is going through and helps them understand at a deeper level what it’s like to be that person.
Role play also helps vocabulary development. A doctor uses different terms and words in their job than an auto mechanic or a chef. By role playing, a child is learning and using different terminology than they may normally use or be exposed to. Likewise, role play encourages social and emotional development. A veterinarian or nurse often shows compassion for their sick patient. And, if more than one child is playing, pretend play and dress up encourages taking turns, cooperation and socialization.
Dress up is even appealing to very young children. A simple hat or apron or mommy or daddy’s shoes is often enough to spark the giggles, learning, and pretend play in toddlers. (Our youngest child used to be a chronic photo bomber and in each picture he was sporting one of our dress-up hats!)
Great occupational role play costume ideas:
- Fireman – fireman coat & hat, fire extinguisher, megaphone
- Construction Workers — construction vest, hard hat, tools
- Chef – apron, chef’s hat
- Policeman — badge, policeman’s hat, handcuffs
- Ballerina — tutu, ballet shoes
- Doctor or nurse – scrubs, stethoscope, doctor kit
Other great fodder for the imagination that can be found at home:
- Daddy’s or mommy’s shoes
- glasses with the lenses removed
- costume jewelry
- purses, bags, briefcases, and small luggage
- emptied perfume bottles
- gloves (the longer, the better)
- hospital scrubs
- tutus or dance costumes
#2 Fantasy & Fairy Tale Costumes
Dress-up play is actually vital to a child’s development. It encourages the imaginative process, allows for play without rules or script, and allows for experimentation, role play and fantasy.
While playing superheroes and knowing how to swing from a web to rescue someone may not seem all that essential to us, pretend play promotes problem solving and abstract thinking. Plus, pretending to be superheroes and princesses often makes a child more confident. When they are more confident, their self-esteem is raised. It’s these behaviors and values that are so essential to nurture in a child.
Fantasy and fairy tale dress up ideas:
- Halloween costumes – you can find some at much lower prices on Amazon at this time of year
- Superhero masks & capes — Being a boy mom, I’m pretty much an expert in this area. So here’s my couple suggestions… if your child is a Batman fan, this Batman mask is by far the #1 fought after mask and the mask that gets worn the most in our house (and trust me, we have them ALL)! And… I LOVE this reversible cape! It’s Batman on one side, Superman on the other, and it’s well made!
- Pirate attire — a bandana, eye patch, black vest (don’t forget the booty… a tub of jewels and gold coins!)
#3 Building Toys
I have to hand it to my boys, they can get very creative while building. Better yet, they role play with their building creations. If Connor makes a combine out of his Tinker Toys, he becomes the farmer and is in the field harvesting. If Dylan makes an airplane out of Bristle Blocks, he is the pilot flying around the room and down the hallway.
Check out our Top 10 Building Toys for Preschoolers for a great list of fun tools for building!
Nothing says Mr. Fix-It like a little boy with a toolbox full of hammers, drills, and screwdrivers! As toddlers and preschoolers, they had their plastic tools and a toy work bench. Rarely did the boys just “create” at their work bench though. Most of the time, they are fixing truck wheels and working on anything with a visible screw hole! Now that they’re older, Grandpa & Grandma supplied them with their own toolbox and a real set of tools (screwdrivers, tape measure, level, hammer). Of course, the real tools stay in the garage and only come out for projects they work on with Daddy.
My boys’ favorite toy tools (in order) are:
- Tape measure
- Hand saw
And the great thing is many of these tools are teaching hand-eye coordination and motor skills with the turn of the screwdriver and learning to pinch with the pliers.
#5 Tents & Camping Accessories
My boys started “camping” on their own with no adult leading or prompting. One day they decided to gather up the stuffed animals and special blankets they sleep with and went on a camping adventure. It was nothing more than laying out their blankets (or in their imaginations… sleeping bags) on the floor of Dylan’s dark bedroom. They talked about campfires and animals. They even had an animal attack… by that I mean when their baby brother came quickly toddling into the room, they jumped up and yelled “Animal, animal! There’s an animal coming!” (Funny as we often call Ethan an “animal”!)
Camping to boys is like playing house is to girls. Stuffed animals = dolls. Sleeping bags = baby blankets. Canteens = tea sets. Binoculars hung around the neck = dress up jewelry. A frying pan and foldable silverware = dishes. See what I mean?
My boys love using their binoculars and compass to help them find their way! And they often have play bandaids, canteens of juice, and backpacks of play food to trek with them.
What can you do to help your kiddos equipped for their camping journey?
- Make a fort! There are even kid-size tents available. A tent won’t consume your dining room table and could be left up for days on end. However, there is just something extra special and fun about fort making. So grab some blankets and get creative!
- Put together a bin of their camping supplies
- Make your own toilet paper roll binoculars
#6 Figurines & Dolls
Dolls and figures allow your child to create their own little world and they give children a way to act out the scenes they see in everyday life.
Dolls can be bathed, changed, fed and cuddled which mimics the way you nurture your child. Preschoolers and young school-age children love dolls with a lot of hair and clothing as they are often associated with grooming activities.
Dolls that teach self-help skills like buttoning, lacing, snapping and zipping are also good choices.
Figurines offers a broader variety. We’re talking about everything from Fisher Price Little People to superheroes and ninja turtles to Barbies. The Fisher Price Little People can be found in farm sets, airplanes, helicopters, school buses. These are a great starting point for toddlers to use figures in pretend play.
When thinking of gift giving, think of doll storage like baby beds and strollers, think about clothing changes or hair brushes, or matching outfits for doll and child. For action figures, think about where the action figure/superhero lives. Does your Batman have a batcave? Our boys like to rescue their Buzz Lightyear and other figurines with their Batcoptor. So as you stand looking at the myriad of figurines lining the shelves, think outside the box to what could expand your child’s play with their favorite toy.
#7 Construction Trucks and Farm Equipment
Until I had boys, I never fully appreciated the many uses of a construction truck! Some of our trucks have a permanent home in the sand box. Our medium-duty construction trucks are often part of our sensory bins and Playdough play time. Our heavy-duty (very large) dump trucks haul the dirty clothes from where they pile on the playroom floor under the laundry chute into the laundry room where they are dumped.
Anything can be a construction zone or farmland. My boys stay busy harvesting the
rug field in the living room and then driving to the next farm in the family room. They have the system down just like grandpa does with the tractor and grain cart parallel to the combine and the semi waiting at the end of the field for the next load. Hey, if they can’t be in the real thing, at least they can pretend!
So while the engine roar and honking noises your child makes for this playtime actually sounds like a Chicago interstate during rush hour, focus on the process of play. Ask your child exploratory questions such as “Where is that truck going?” or “That is such a noisy truck. What is it honking at?” to help extend his/her play. And if you really want to make your child’s day, get on the floor and play next to them!
#8 Play Food
“Why yes, I would like a sandwich made with hamburger, lunchmeat, 3 layers of cheese, all the toppings, an extra bun for support… and I would like it to be 10” long! Thank you!” This is often the scenario when my boys get into “cooking” mode. As I stretch my mouth as big as possible to pretend encompass this mammoth sandwich, giggles instantly ensue. It only take a couple of pretend bites with chipmunk-packed cheeks to make this mommy full, but the feast keeps on coming!
Kids must realize that food and bonding go hand-in-hand. Think about how much fun you and your child have when making daddy a special dessert. My boys LOVE being in charge of our big Kitchen Aid standing mixer. They are so proud of this special opening, dumping, closing, locking, turning on big-boy job. Think about the quality time spent around the dinner table. Or the dinner parties and carry-ins with extended family and friends! With these wonderful experiences, why wouldn’t kids want to pretend play with food?
How to get fun with food:
- wooden food sets from Melissa & Doug that allow kids to slice, cut, or make their own food creations like sandwiches
- play kitchens are a hit with both girls and boys
- plastic food and/or dishes
- safe kitchen items from your kitchen cabinets
- tea sets for an afternoon tea party
- grill sets are great for mimicking daddy cooking away over the open flame
- table clothes to fit your child’s table
- create a menu for your child’s dinner party
- have your child recreate a dish that you have cooked together
#9 Music Makers
For our oldest child’s first birthday, my aunt and uncle got him a child’s music set which included a plastic snare drum, drumsticks, a tambourine, maracas, and a song flute/recorder. Oh what fun he had… and what a headache mommy had! Even 4 years later, it is not my most favorite toy (I do like the little bit of sanity I have left). However, the benefits music plays in child development is what keeps that set in the house.
Music does not actually make one smarter, but it has been shown that a child’s abilities in learning and other non-music skills are often greatly improved. Here are some of the areas music can enhance:
- Language development
- Increased IQ
- Larger growth of brain activity
- Spatial-Temporal Skills (in other words, visualizing common elements and problem solving)
- Improved test scores
For more details, check out PBS Parents’ “The Benefit of Music Education”.
Ways to engage your child with music:
- Musical making toys — check out bands in a box type sets or Melissa & Doug has a wooden set with cymbals & a triangle
- CDs and DVDs with child-appropriate songs
- Sing with your child at bath time, while making dinner or doing crafts. Anytime is a good time to sing… even if you’re not good at it, they are just happy to have a duet! So go for it and belt out those lyrics to “If You’re Happy & You Know It”!
- Make up silly songs about what you’re doing. Its silliness is contagious and soon your kids will be making up their own songs and rhythms.
- Have a dance party!
#10 Cash Register & Money Play
When I was a little girl, I used to pretend play store. I’d use my Speak & Spell as the store scanner, making it blip every time I ran an item over it. It also doubled as a credit card machine… and oh, yah… as a spelling aid too!
When we purchased our little cash register for Connor, it was nothing more than a fun motor skill toy with bright colors, buttons to push, a drawer that pops out, and a little bell that dings. However, one dreary inside play day when the boys (surrounded by a plethora of toys) complained they were “bored”, I reminisced back to one of my childhood favorites and taught them how to pretend play store with their cash register. It was a hit! Connor was the store clerk and Dylan was the shopper. Dylan would find all kinds of things on the playroom shelves that he “just had to buy”. He had a pocket full of chunky cash register money that he would hand over upon Connor stating the price of each item. Sometimes Dylan got change back. Sometimes he didn’t have enough money. And sometimes Connor, being the compassionate soul he is, would give him a store discount and just let him have the item. Dylan would “take his purchases home” and come back for more. This didn’t just last 15 minutes, but rather an hour or so and then carried on for weeks.
That was just with our toddler cash register. However, there are more elaborate cash register sets with money that is akin to true currency. This is a great way to teach money and have fun playing at the same time!
Oh my goodness, working through this list of pretend play items almost makes me miss my imaginary friend from childhood! Parents… don’t push these precious days of pretend play away too quickly. Enjoy the sweetness of this time in your child’s long. The real world will catch up with them soon enough.
Happy shopping, friends!