#300 Selecting Therapy Activities for Toddlers and Preschoolers Part 6 Early Pretend Play

In today’s podcast we’re moving on to the next category of play: early pretend play.

It’s so much fun when a child reaches this developmental level. This kind of play is essential for language development because we are teaching a child to become symbolic – and that’s what words are – symbols. Listen to the show for more discussion about this concept. Listen here:

Many toddlers with language delays get stuck just before this level of play begins or in the early phases of pretend play, but there are ways we can help a child begin to engage in early pretending.

Steps for Introducing Pretend Play:

  1. Help a child learn to use familiar toys appropriately or functionally.

In other words, a child will begin to use a toy or an object in the way it’s intended. For example, push a toy car, stack blocks, throw or roll a ball, read a book, pound a hammer, etc…

If you’ve been following this hierarchy, a child is already doing these things. If not, he or she isn’t ready for pretend play! BACK UP to the earlier kinds of play. Listen to the previous shows in this series for ideas.

  1. Help a child learn to use objects herself.

It may help to think of this as “on” or “to” herself. Begin with familiar objects from daily routines:

  • Everyday items – phone
  • Dishes- cup, spoon, plate, bowl, fork
  • Toy Foods – variety of plastic foods
  • Bath & Sleeping Items – toothbrush, brush, washcloth, blanket, Band-Aids
  • Early Dress Up – hats, shoes, glasses, gloves, backpack/purses/bags, crowns

Listen to the show for a cute way to introduce this idea in a Pretend With Me Backpack.

  1. Help him learn to use objects on another person. 

With all the items we’ve discussed, the next goal is to use the object on another person. For example, a child would try to give Mommy a drink from his cup or brush Daddy’s hair.

Sometimes this step comes easily for a child and he will naturally begin to expand object use in this way.

However, in some children with developmental delays, we’ll have to teach (even over-teach) this step. Keep at it! This is particularly challenging for children who don’t consistently include other people during play. (This may also be a red flag for autism.)


  1. Help her learn to combine objects in pretend play.

Combining objects means that a child will use more than one object together during play. For example, she will feed a baby doll a bottle or cover a doll with a blanket.

If you introduce combining the objects with other things too soon, you may lose the child, so don’t rush it. I often see this is play when I’m introducing baby dolls. If the child is more interested in using the objects himself, then back up and play at this level for a while. Results in child staying with you and interacting better.

This process of teaching early pretend play usually takes some time to develop. It likely will NOT happen in one session, or even over a couple of months, particularly for children with moderate to significant receptive language and/or cognitive delays.


If you’d like specific toy suggestions, I’ve included these for you below:


Doll Sets

Playing “babies” is the very best and easiest early pretend activity out there! For dads who are concerned about letting their little boys play dolls, try a boy doll, or a character doll, or stuffed animal. Gather lots of small accessories to make play with dolls exciting for toddlers. Before you go out and buy anything, look around your own house! My basic set includes cups, spoons, a fork, bowl/plate, bottles of milk and juice, blanket, carrier, brush, hats, shirts, diapers, wipes, socks or shoes, a few pieces of plastic food, and a “toy” for the baby.

Think about bigger pretend pieces too like a stroller, a bed, a high chair/feeding seat, etc…

Bath sets are FANTASTIC!

There are so many things you can do to target receptive language with doll sets. Work on following simple directions such as, “Feed the baby,” “Brush baby’s hair,” or “Wash her toes.” Expand to higher level receptive concepts, “She’s sleepy. What should baby do?”

Expressively, you’ll name the items as you play together. Once a child is verbal, target requesting by having him ask for every single item she needs to play with the dolls.

This kind of play is endless and a must-have activity for every toddler.

Target Words – baby, nouns/names for all of the accessories you’re using, plus all of the verbs/action words you can do with dolls – wash, eat, sleep, drink, jump, walk, dance, swing, night-night, etc…, plus the prepositions/location words you can target – clothing items can be put on/off, baby can be put in/out of various things, baby can climb up, fall down, etc… Dolls are great for teaching descriptive words such as big, little, wet, dry, yucky, stinky, pretty, etc…


Foods/Cooking/Kitchen Sets

My favorite plastic food sets are the ones that can be cut into pieces with the pretend knife. (We talked about this a couple of weeks ago during Early Sit Down play!) These food sets usually come with Velcro to attach the halves back together.  Many therapy catalogues sell plastic foods with velcro, but you can also find them cheaper at major retailers too or online. I often combine food toys with dolls once a child can sequence lots of actions. I also like to use plastic foods with a pretend kitchen or pretend microwave to “cook” the food. The microwave is always a huge hit!

Target Words – cut, eat, cook, stir, all done, plus all the names/nouns of the foods


Pretend Playground and House with Characters

Once a kid has started early pretending with dolls, I introduce some other “setting” for play with smaller characters, animals, or other smaller dolls. (See the paragraph below for info on characters.) Fisher Price makes lots of good toys in this category.  I use the barn quite a bit and the house occasionally. My favorite type of this toy is an older Little People slide with attachable swing. It’s simple and kids love it!

I play with the Little People, but I also collect other little plastic characters for kids’ preferences. In the past, McDonald’s offered lots of these kinds of toys with Happy Meals, so I have gathered quite of collection of lots of different people since the mid-90’s.  You can also buy other little characters solo in the giant retailers. All children’s shows sell a version of their characters in toy stores and online – every Disney character imaginable, Dora and Diego, Sesame Street characters, etc…

Vehicles for Early Pretend Play

Many toddlers prefer this kind of pretending over other options. Start here if that’s what a kid loves! Listen to the show for ideas for the toys below:

Plastic Animal Sets

I have many, many sets of these since they are so versatile and great for vocabulary building. Begin with the basics – animals can eat, sleep, run, cry, hide, jump, etc…

Expand your language options for these toys! Try to find big/little ones to work on size and pretend using the whole family concept.

For my zoo animals, I play zoo by putting the animals into their “cages” using a Chico shape sorter toy with colored keys to open the matching doors.

I use dinosaurs with sand in a small Rubbermaid container with a top so I can lug it in and out of my car and control spills.  This is great alternative for a larger sandbox if you don’t have the space, or when it’s too cold.  Toys R Us sells clean sand in small bags.

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