An Introduction to Pretend Play

Iona Opie once compared children to kittens, noting that both had an ability to get ‘drunk on nothing’ and to ‘create drama out of the most ordinary things’. This extraordinary imagination and capacity for creation is at the heart of children’s play. Drawing on the everyday and the fantastical, children enact games ranging from families to zombie killers, often making no ‘realistic’ distinction between the two. In the world of pretend play, everything has the potential to be real.

Pretend play today is greatly influenced by the media. Despite the widely held belief that the media is destroying children’s play, our researchers suggest that the opposite is true: games consoles, pop music and TV seem actually to enrich play, adding phantasmagorical and topical themes to fantasy scenarios. Children frequently incorporate their favourite TV characters, pop songs, computer-game battles and dance moves into their make-believe worlds. And they rarely simply copy what they’ve memorised, but instead, they transform, recombine and subvert.

Introduction by Michael Rosen.

Some rights reserved. © British Library Board / British Library

Michael Rosen:

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. Make believe play includes games such as families, schools or doctors, in which children enact daily routines. These can be transgressive too, featuring children who are perpetually naughty because they run away and get into mischief. And, for instance, in mums and dads and babies, children who cry a lot. Rather differently, pretend play includes phantasmagoric narratives, in which characters such as zombies, witches and fairies scream, chase, cast spells, catch and kill. 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.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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