pretend play

An introduction to pretend play

Pretend play is essentially dramatic. The banal is transformed into the fantastical, a puddle becomes an ocean, a stick becomes a sword.

The improvisation of scenarios can be derived either from children’s real experiences or from fantasy themes, or both.

This footage, filmed in 1947, offers a glimpse into childhood and children’s play shortly after the Second World War

This recording was made by Iona Opie in Selborne, Hampshire, 1970.

Make believe play includes games such as families, schools or doctors, in which children enact daily routines.

This footage, filmed in 1947, demonstrates the way in which children’s play so often imitates the world surrounding them

This footage demonstrates how children can turn mundane objects into toys through play

These can be transgressive too, featuring children who are perpetually naughty because they run away and get into mischief.

This footage, filmed in Gateshead 1989, shows children playing at having a 'secret' camp

Rather differently, pretend play includes phantasmagoric narratives, in which characters such as zombies, witches and fairies scream, chase, cast spells, catch and kill.

Footage of children incorporating Tae Kwon-Do moves into their play

Fixed play equipment and physical aspects of the playground, and grass area if there is one, may be incorporated into pretend play, becoming, for example, a jail, or the rigging of a ship, a doorway behind which to hide or an animal’s den.

Created in 2010, this film shows two children in Reception class at a Sheffield school building nests out of grass clippings and leaves

Pretend play is found among children of all ages at primary school. As they get older, it may become more subversive. It’ll draw on a wider range of media experiences. It will express more aspirations to adult roles, and it may feature emerging leaders more markedly.

This footage was filmed in 1957 and shows children playing the popular variation of ‘Tag’, commonly called ‘Cops and Robbers’.

This footage, from 1947, is an example of the way in which children refer to and draw upon contemporary events to inspire their play

The media have an important role to play here too, providing raw material for a wide range of narratives, from movies, video games and TV. While it may seem, as with the performances of song and dance routines, that they’re simply copying these sources, this is rarely the case. Instead they transform, recombine and subvert in often surprising ways.

This recording was made by Iona Opie at the American School in London, 1975

Some make believe games draw specifically on children’s experience of computer games, something that’s been noted by researchers for at least ten years. Some examples we found are children adapting stumps in the playground as magic consoles, waving imaginary game weapons, such as light sabres, and playing mimed versions of first person shooters. Though computer games are sometimes blamed for a perceived decline in children’s outdoor play, these examples show how imaginative games in the playground can build on them.

An animation about the 'pretend play'

Why do children like make believe play? They often say it’s because they don’t have to follow particular rules and they can make up anything, inventing their own events, characters and actions. It also gives them a chance to enjoy and display their shared knowledge of fantasy scenarios from film, television, computer games, comics and fairy tales. Children, like adults, get respect and admiration for cultural knowledge.

In this film Michael Rosen introduces the history of pretend play.

Banner credit: © Bettmann/Getty Images

Article: © Michael Rosen

  • Michael Rosen
  • Michael Rosen is Professor of Children's Literature at Goldsmiths University. From 2007-2009 he was Children's Laureate.