Toddler imaginative play - girl playing with toys

How To Encourage Imaginative Play In Toddlers

If you think back hard enough, you may remember a time, as a child, where you pretended to host a tea party with your teddy bears, or perhaps you imagined you were fighting bad guys and saving the world.

Often referred to as playing make believe, pretend play or imaginative play, children love to role-play and act in scenarios that they devise entirely in their heads. It’s a wonderful way for your child to unleash their creativity, explore their imagination and make sense of the world around them. 

But how do you encourage imaginative play in your toddler? Here are some ways to prompt your little one, along with some pretend play ideas to guide them in the right direction.


Overview: How to encourage imaginative play in toddlers


When do toddlers start imaginative play?

Before we find out how to encourage imaginative play in toddlers, let’s make sure you’re not jumping the gun. Typically, toddlers start imaginative play at around the 18 month mark. For example, you might see them pretend to talk on your phone or drink from a cup. They may also start to care for their toys and play with them in a specific way.

As your little one grows older and their vocabulary expands, you will usually start to see them using toys as props to role-play more familiar situations. By 36 months, your child might start to act out less familiar situations and play pretend without physical objects.

Finally, from the ages of 3-5 your little one will be able to completely fabricate scenarios, whilst also involving other children in their play.


How to encourage imaginative play in toddlers


  • Observe your toddler’s interests

To engage your toddler in imaginative play, you’ll need to keep a close eye on what they are interested in. This could simply be a toy that they always gravitate towards, a TV show they love to watch or their favourite bedtime story.



  • Sit opposite your toddler

Rather than observing your toddler from behind them or across the room, take a seat opposite your little one. When they can see you, they will feel more connected to you through seeing your facial expressions. Additionally, you’ll get a better view of how they’re playing.



  • Pick out a couple of their favourite toys

To nudge your toddler in the right direction, you could set up a couple of their favourite toys that might be related to one another. For example, prompt a cooking themed role-play by setting out some fake food and plates.

The key here is not to overwhelm your little one. Don’t put out their entire toy box and expect them to stay engaged.



  • Play with your child instead of narrating 

When it comes to prompting your toddler, there’s no better way to do so than taking a hands-on approach. At the end of the day, your toddler spends their day observing and learning from you, so getting involved can sometimes be the most engaging option for them.

So, instead of narrating what they are doing, join in! For example, as opposed to asking “are you cooking something to eat?”, ask if you can try some of their yummy food and pretend to eat it. 

Parent playing with toddler during imaginative play



  • Demonstrate imaginative play

Every toddler is different; some need little encouragement to start imaginative play, whereas others might need to see how it’s done.

You can do this by initiating the pretend play. You might start pretending to cook using their toys, pretend to take a bite and then ask your toddler to try some themselves.

It is important that once they start playing along, you do not take over their pretend play. Let them take the lead and simply follow along when they ask you to or when you can see they’re becoming uninterested.



  • Talk to your toddler about memories they enjoyed

Sometimes, the reason that your toddler may not partake in imaginative play is that they simply do not have anything to imagine.

You can get the ball rolling by telling them about a memory they really enjoyed, for example going to a farm and seeing the animals. In these situations, you can purchase toys that remind them of a specific memory.



  • Introduce your child to new experiences

Finally, to help your child excel in their imaginative play, it’s important to introduce your child to as many new experiences as possible. These experiences really do not have to be extravagant; you could simply go for a walk in a new area or encourage them to try different foods at a restaurant.

Additionally, you can introduce your child to new experiences without having a day out! Pick up a new book to read to them about something they’re not familiar with yet. Reading is an excellent way for your child to learn about new topics.



Pretend play ideas for toddlers

Need a couple of pretend play ideas for your toddler? Here are a few to get you inspired.

how to encourage imaginative play in toddlers

  • Build a den and pretend it’s their house
  • Set up a tea party with their toys as guests
  • Make a pretend family with their toys
  • Become superheroes
  • Host a fashion show
  • Pretend to drive using toy cars
  • Set up a pretend shop
  • Become a detective and find who “stole” a cookie
  • Pretend to be a doctor or nurse
  • Host a puppet show


Encouraging imaginative play at Maryam’s Nursery

At Maryam’s Nursery, our eco-conscious designed indoor play area was built with creative and sensory play in mind: the ideal place to start engaging others in imaginative play.

We love letting our kids explore and get messy; after all, learning is meant to be fun and encourage healthy development.

Want to find out more about our nursery? Download a brochure or book a space at our Open Day.