The Magic of Pretend Play

My 3 year old son pulls a sheet over his shoulders and runs as fast as he can across the lawn. The air lifts the fabric and his jumps. “I’m flying, mummy!” the 3-year-old says. He’s a superhero, out to save the backyard from dragons hiding behind the bushes and find treasure buried in the garden bed.

Just as the child in the book, My Magnificent Jelly Bean Tree (included in our Box of Wishes), with the help of a frilly dress, tiara, and magic wand, your 4-year-old is transformed into the queen of a magical universe where her rocking horse is a winged unicorn. When you’re asked to taste the pink clouds, you agree that they’re a lot like bubblegum.

Parents of preschoolers have a front-row seat to some of the most imaginative theater ever produced.

These are the so-called “magic years” — when a child’s brain is developed enough to imagine grand stories but not yet complex enough to reason the way adults do and ask, “But can that really happen?”

Here’s why imagination is so important and what you can do to foster these magic years.

How preschoolers view the world

Babies use their senses to learn about the world. As they develop, they begin to understand the basic function of things (e.g. if I push this button, the cat will pop out of the hat).

For preschoolers, they take this knowledge and combine it with a growing imagination to ‘fill in the blanks’, making up their own fantastical ideas about how and why things happen.

These years are often referred to as ‘the magic years’ as suggested by child development experts, including Selma Fraiberg when she published her much acclaimed book of the same name in 1959.


When your child engages in pretend (or dramatic) play, he is actively experimenting with the social and emotional roles of life. Through cooperative play, he learns how to take turns, share responsibility, and creatively problem-solve. When your child pretends to be different characters, he has the experience of “walking in someone else’s shoes,” which helps teach the important moral development skill of empathy. It is normal for young children to see the world from their own egocentric point of view, but through maturation and cooperative play, your child will begin to understand the feelings of others.

Language benefits of imaginative play

Have you ever listened in as your child engages in imaginary play with his toys or friends? You will probably hear some words and phrases you never thought he knew! In fact, we often hear our own words reflected in the play of children. Kids can do a perfect imitation of mum, dad, and the teacher! Pretend play helps your child understand the power of language. Additionally, by pretend playing with others, he learns that words give him the means to reenact a story or organize play.

This process helps your child to make the connection between spoken and written language — a skill that will later help him learn to read.

How to nurture imaginative play


  • Join in and play – When young ones leap through the air and tell you they’re flying, don’t tell them they’re only jumping. Feed the fantasy: “Wow, you’re so high up! What can you see on the ground? Maybe you should take a rest on that nice puffy cloud.” Or even better, start flying with them.
  • Choose old-fashioned toys – Blocks, dolls, arts and crafts, and molding clay are all toys that require creativity and therefore spur imagination. Read another blog about the best toys for language development here.
  • Limit electronic toys –  Whether it’s a handheld entertainment system or a “junior” laptop, try to avoid toys that need batteries. Creativity is stifled when the toy, rather than the child, directs the play.
  • Read to your child – While reading, ask mind-opening questions: “If you were the caterpillar, what would you eat?” and “What do you think will happen next in the story?” This not only encourages imagination but promotes language skills and fosters an interest in books.
  • Schedule downtime – Make sure kids have free time every day to play on their own. Aside from encouraging creativity, it teaches them to use their own resources to amuse or soothe themselves.

Box of wishes cropped square

Join your kids as they explore the world through imaginative play. Our Little Birdie Books book boxes are a perfect addition to the home to bring new ideas and themes into your child’s play.


  • Paul, Rhea (2007). Language Disorders from Infancy through Adolescence: Assessment and Intervention (3rd ed.) Edinburgh : Elsevier Mosby
  • Weitzman, Elaine. (2017). It Takes Two to Talk: 5th edition. The Hanen Centre: Toronto.
  • Fraiberg, Selma. (1959). The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood. New York: Charles Scribners Sons Ltd.