pretend play

Pretend play

Pretend play is an important part of children's development, Jackie Marsh examines the progress of pretend play.

Pretend play takes place when children undertake a make-believe role and use language and/ or expression and movement to convey meaning in that role. Such play begins at an early age, as toddlers copy actions they have observed adults undertaking, such as making a telephone call, or stirring a pot.

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

This kind of play is very important to children’s development as it enhances their imagination, improves their understanding of narrative, develops symbolic thought (as they use one object to stand for another, such as a stick for a horse), enhances problem solving and contributes to language development. Pretend play undertaken by toddlers is often simple in nature, as children mimic single actions, usually on their own at first, such as pretending to sleep. As they get older and their language develops, children engage in more elaborate scenarios, often with other children, and use language, gestures, mime and objects to act out roles. Children may enjoy using dressing-up clothes to enhance the ‘make-believe’ element of their play. They frequently take on roles they have observed in everyday life, such as mummies or daddies, as in this example from the mid-twentieth century:

This footage was shot in Gateshead, 1989, shows two girls playing the game ‘Mummies and Daddies’

In Children’s Games in Street and Playground (1969), the Opies identified eight categories of ‘pretending games’:

  • Mothers and Fathers
  • Playing Schools
  • Road Accidents (boys feign injury; girls make-believe they are nurses)
  • Playing Horses (children pretend to be or to possess animals)
  • Storybook World (children make-believe they would be able to manage in abnormal situations)
  • War Games (children engage in pretence battles either against an imaginary enemy or an opposing group of children)
  • Cops and Robbers (players on one side chase or seek the other side)
  • Fairies and Witches (girls enact the everlasting fight between good and evil) (1969: xxv–xxvi)

They noted that in these forms of pretend play, children draw on a range of sources such as topical events, books, TV and school life. They provide examples of this kind of play from previous centuries, such as children playing weddings in the 16th century painting by Bruegel, Children’s Games, and children during WWII pretending that they were going into a gas chamber in the Auschwitz concentration camp. In a more recent study of playground games, it was found that all of the categories of pretend play identified by the Opies could be found, apart from road accidents (see Willett et al, 2013). This is not surprising, given that children in the mid-twentieth century were more likely than children today to be involved in road accidents during outdoor play, as they were unused to sharing roads with cars.

Children from Gateshead in 1989 prentending to drive the car

The pretend play of children in contemporary society, whilst similar in terms of the types of pretend play it includes, draws on a rather different set of referents than children sixty years ago. Whilst playing war games, for example, is still a staple fare of childhood, children are no longer playing WWII games, or Cowboys and Indians, but drawing on video games such as World of Warfare or Call of Duty. There is an example of such play in the following film:

This is an example of an imaginary action game involving an agonistic scenario

Another type of pretend play identified by the Opies was ‘Acting Games’, which involve specific stories and set dialogue. An example they provide of this type of game is ‘Fox and Chickens’, in which children take on the roles of a fox, a hen and her chickens. The chickens line up behind the hen and together they approach the fox, chanting. A set dialogue then occurs (such as “What are you doing old fox?” “Picking up sticks?” “What for?” “To cook a chicken.” “Where will you get it?” “From your flock!”). The fox then attempts to catch the last chicken in the line, taking him or her back to the den before the scenario is repeated until all the chickens have been caught. This format is not found in today’s playgrounds, but older children do develop elaborate set pieces that are based on their television viewing. For example, in the following example, children at Monteney Primary School act out the popular game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?:

Led by a Year 6 boy, these children were filmed at a Sheffield school playground in 2010 re-enacting the television game show 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?'

In such play, children demonstrate their powers of observation, often mimicking the voices, catch phrases and mannerisms of game show presenters and celebrities with impressive accuracy. In the same playground, children were observed playing scenes from The Jeremy Kyle Show, which is a daytime UK television talk show, aired since 2005. The programme is typical of confrontational talk shows such as The Jerry Springer Show, which originated in the US, and features participants who discuss controversial or taboo topics and attempt to resolve problems in their lives in a public forum. For these children, the play appeared to enable them to come to terms with some topical concerns of their community, such as teenagers taking drugs, or teenage pregnancy. Whilst these themes might be very different from those informing children’s play sixty years ago, the processes involved in the formation of this play have not changed. As the Opies’ noted, children’s:

… pretending games turn out to be little more than reflections (often distorted reflections) of how they themselves live, and of how their mothers and fathers live, and of the books they read, and the TV programmes they watch. Whatever has latest caught their fancy is tested on their perpetual stage.
(Opie & Opie, 1969, pp. 330-331)

The footage, fimed in Gateshead during 1989, demonstrates how children explore fear and concerns through play

Pretend play is important in enabling children to replay their daily experiences and to rehearse ways in which they might respond to real-life scenarios. This kind of play can provide an important therapeutic role, therefore, and allow children to come to terms with the most challenging of contexts, as the concentration camp example identified by the Opies indicated. Pretend play is, thus, a crucial form of play in terms of enabling children to develop and learn and will be always be an essential element of childhood throughout the ages.

This footage, from 2010, demonstrates how children subvert popular culture for their own games


Iona Opie and Peter Opie, Children’s Games in Street and Playground (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).

Rebekah Willett, Chris Richards, Jackie Marsh, Andrew Burn, and Julia Bishop, Children, Media and Playground Cultures: Ethnographic Studies of School Playtimes (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).


Banner credit: William Vanderson/Stringer/Getty Images

  • Jackie Marsh
  • Jackie Marsh is Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield, where she is engaged in research on childhoods, play and digital literacy. Her main interests are the role and nature of popular culture, media and new technologies in young children’s early literacy development, both in and outside school. She has conducted research projects that have explored children’s access to new technologies and their emergent digital literacy skills, knowledge and understanding.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.