Have you gotten to the pretending stage of toddlerhood yet? I had forgotten how much fun pretend games can be until Toot started to show interest in pretending. I think as an adult you forget HOW to pretend because you spend so much of your day doing real things. We don’t have time for pretending except for maybe reading a book. So what kind of pretending games can you play with your toddler? Here are 17 ideas to get you started!
When and how toddlers learn to pretend
Toddlers will start pretending as early as 18 months. (Sometimes as early as 12 months!) They start by copying simple things like talking on the phone. Toot started talking on the phone and we had no idea where she got it from because we rarely ever CALL anyone with our phones. lol.
By two years old, they are ready for full pretending games.
You should be aware that toddlers can’t yet pretend things out of thin air like older kids can. Toddlers need a placeholder object. They can’t just hold their hand up to their ear and pretend they have a phone. They need something tangible. It doesn’t even have to really look like the object. Toot made some calls on an Eggo waffle once. But it does help if it resembles the object at least a little.
1. Mail Carrier
Delivering mail is a lot of fun if you’re a toddler. Set up little “mailboxes” around your house for stuffed animals or for family members. You can make a mailbox out of a shoe box or any of the leftover Amazon boxes you have lying around your house. lol
Use junk mail or have your toddler “write” letters. Tell your little one who to deliver them to or just let them choose.
If you want a cute mailbox toy with wooden letters and stamps, we have this Melissa and Doug mailbox set and it is fantastic. You have to put the right letters in the right size slots and have the stamp velcroed on at the right place for it to go in. So it helps with shape matching and problem solving skills.
2. Pretend Kitchen and baking
Y’all, my kid is obsessed with her kitchen. She now has one upstairs and one downstairs. She loves to put food in the microwave. Sometimes she puts her bears in there too which worries me. But She loves to play with her pretend food and make lunch for her stuffed animals.
If you don’t have the money for a play kitchen, you can always DIY one out of an old entertainment center or a cabinet or bookcase.
We also love this Melissa and Doug cookie baking set.
3. Dinosaur or other animals
My nephews used to love pretending to be dinosaurs. They would stomp around and roar. Your toddler can pretend to be any animal. Hop around like frogs or kangaroos. It’s a great game to learn about animals and animal noises. Try all kinds of animals: pets, barnyard animals, jungle animals, and sea creatures. Even mythical animals like unicorns, dragons, or monsters are fun to pretend to be.
Bonus: it doesn’t require any materials.
4. Pirate adventures
Toot has discovered pirates. Eye patches and buried treasure are fun to play with. You can get a whole pirate costume if you’d like. Or just keep it simple and make your own eye patch with construction paper and a ribbon or string.
Looking for buried treasure throughout the house or backyard is similar to Easter egg hunts. You can even use Easter eggs to hide coins! Draw a quick map and mark it with an X. You can hide a treasure chest like this or make one out of a shoe box. Plastic doubloons are fun to find. I used to love them when I was a kid. Or hide your own kind of treasure like candy or stickers.
5. Tea (or coffee) parties
Who hasn’t had a tea party? (Toot. She has coffee parties. lol) Invite all of your stuffed animals or dolls to sit and drink tea and eat cakes. Your toddler can learn to serve guests and learn pouring skills if you use actual water to pretend.
We have this learning tea pot that sings songs and makes pouring noises. It has three levels. Level 3 is playing pretend. She’s had it since she was probably 9 months old.
Yes, boys can have tea/coffee parties too. They aren’t just for girls.
6. Lemonade stand
Even if you don’t set up a real lemon stand, you can have pretend customers (stuffed animals.) Toddlers might be a little young for actually sitting at the end of the driveway with a pitcher of lemonade, but that doesn’t mean they can’t pretend inside or in the backyard. If you have some toddlers over for a play date, they can take turns being the customer.
If you really want to go all out, there’s a cool lemonade stand by Melissa and Doug.
7. Ballerina or Dancer
Even boys can pretend to be a ballet dancer! They don’t need a tutu. But they can still dance like ballet dancers!
If ballet isn’t your kiddo’s style, try hip hop or pop star dancing. Make a little stage and turn a lamp into a spotlight.
8. Favorite Character Play
When I was a kid, I would pretend to be the characters in Lion King, Power Rangers, Pocahontas, basically anything I loved at the time. My daughter loves to pretend to be Doc McStuffins and the characters from Paw Patrol and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. (She always wants me to be Miss Elaina for some reason.)
We have a dress-up pretend play Doc McStuffins kit that her Aunt Kelly got her for her birthday. She loves wearing the coat and using the otoscope.
But for playing Daniel Tiger and Paw Patrol, she likes to hold the stuffed animals and make them talk. Sometimes she makes them talk to each other and sometimes she’ll ask me to be one of the pups. When you pretend play with your toddler, you help them build social skills like conversation and taking turns.
All you need for this pretending game is books and maybe a bookshelf. Your toddler can pretend to check books out of their library, or they can pretend to be the librarian.
Ask your toddler to find you specific books from their shelves. They can learn how to search and find what they’re looking for. (A skill they’ll forget when they’re teenagers. lol)
You can make little due date cards out of index cards or just regular paper. This is a good way to start teaching days of the week and how a calendar works. Or you can actually buy due date cards to play with for just a couple of dollars.
Need more books? (who doesn’t lol) Here are our favorites.
10. Grocery Shopping
An easy way to pretend grocery shop is just set out all of your plastic food on tables or on the couch and have your toddler pick out what they want and put it in a little basket. Toot loves her shopping carts. She has one at home and at Grandma’s house. So if you can afford a grocery cart toy, go for it. It’s one of Toot’s favorites.
Or make an ingredient list for your toddler. Tell them to get specific items to make a recipe.
11. Cleaning or Sweeping
I have no idea why someone would thinking cleaning or sweeping would be fun. But apparently toddlers love it. They like pretending to be adults. What do adults do? We clean things for 60 years and then we die. (Don’t you feel like you’re always cleaning? UGH. I’m always cleaning.)
We have this cleaning set by Melissa and Doug and she likes the broom the most. I got it for her for Christmas because she kept trying to use the real broom and was knocking stuff off the walls and off the table. It was way too big for her. So she got one her own size. Bonus: it actually does sweep so she’s actually helping!
12. Rock star
Turn anything into a microphone: a hair brush, a tube from a toilet paper roll, a water bottle. You can get those microphones that echo your voice pretty cheaply. (Remember those? I still have one from the 90’s.)
Drums can be made from literally anything. Pots are classic drums. If you have drumsticks but don’t want a loud sound, use pillows! They make a deadened sound when hit with a stick.
Remember when we were kids and we made guitars from a kleenex box and rubberbands? You can do that but be careful with rubberbands around toddlers. They might snap. (I’m terrified of actual guitar strings snapping because I’ve had it happen to me before.)
Your little one can learn how a restaurant works by pretending to be a waiter or waitress. They can also be the chef! Have them take orders from their friends or stuffed animals. (Preferably something that matches the plastic food you have. lol) And they can bring it to them at a table!
We have that is lightweight plastic and comes with 4 chairs. It’s so easy to wipe clean that she eats her meals at it. It’s also fun to use as a restaurant table.
14. Mommy or Daddy
Pretending to be mommy or daddy will probably be their first pretend play game. The first thing they notice and want to emulate is us, their parents. That’s why baby dolls are so popular. Not just with girls, too. Boys like taking care of babies! You’ll see this especially if they have a little brother or sister.
Get a baby doll and make a crib and changing area for it. We still use her old bassinet from her Pack N Play that lifts out as a doll bed. She loves putting the baby to sleep and “changing” her diaper.
15. Little photographer
Toddlers love taking photos. If you can part with your phone, (or maybe an old phone or ipod with a camera) let them take real pictures! But if not, a toy camera works just fine. Or make one out of small box.
Tell them to take photos of nature, their favorite toys, their friends, anything they find interesting.
A classic pretend play game: doctor! Get out the band-aids. Make a stethoscope out of some old headphones by just taping a cardboard circle on the plug. Or you can buy a dress up doctor kit.
Have your toddler perform checkups on their stuffed animals or dolls or on you! They can give out band-aids and kisses on boo-boos. Plus they can learn about body parts. Not just arms and legs but hearts and lungs too!
We have the Doc McStuffins dress up kit that came with some of her tools like her otoscope and a cast. But she doesn’t pretend to be Doc McStuffins all the time. Sometimes she’s Doctor Anna from Daniel Tiger. lol
17. Drive Thru
Her favorite pretend play game right now is Drive Thru. If you have plastic play food, all you really need is a box that you can cut a window in. You and your toddler can take turns being the chef and the customer. When I’m the customer, I like to hold up stuffed animals like her Paw Patrol Pups to the window to order food.
We have a play kitchen that has a window already in it. That’s how she discovered she loves this game.
What are your favorite pretend play games?
Let me know in the comments below! Pretend play is important for toddlers to practice their skills, especially social skills. But sometimes we as parents forget how to play pretend because it’s been so long since we were little. I hope these ideas will inspire you to create your own pretending games with your little ones!
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