Tuning in to children’s imaginative play will encourage language development

PIP Let's Pretend

Tuning in to children’s imaginative play will encourage language development, says Anne O’Connor

Tristan and his mother have walked from their house to the park. They find a place to play among some fallen tree trunks. His imagination is stimulated by the space and Tristan spots something that reminds him of a dinosaur. Mum responds, recognising and tuning into what he is thinking. As he clambers up the stump with her help, he comments that ‘it’s too steep’, although he clearly enjoys the effort and risk involved.

From there he spots an arrangement of fallen trees that reminds him of something else and he gets his mother to join him in his ‘boat’. They sit together and sway as though they are ‘chugging along’ in the water.

Tristan leaves the boat, telling her he will be back soon. He runs a little distance saying ‘Tristan get apples’. Mum calls him back and he returns as if holding something in his hand, saying over and over again, ‘Tristan’s got apples’. As he sits back in the boat he tells Mum he’s going to ‘chop it up’ and then offers her a ‘little piece’.


1 The outdoors is a great place for imaginative play. The natural environment is open-ended and the possibilities for imagining and creating pretend situations are endless.

As well as providing opportunities for physical exploration and active climbing, balancing and jumping, the fallen tree trunks stimulate Tristan to develop a narrative that both he and his mother can share. As Helen Huleatt writes in I Made A Unicorn – Open-ended play with blocks and simple materials (2008), ‘Children’s favourite climbing frames are trees, boulders, and logs which through imagination become mountains, horses, fishing boats, castles, fire engines…’ Tristan and his mother can both fit inside the boat so that they too become part of the symbolic play, and Tristan leads the action and decides the ‘story’.

2 Using one object to represent another is an important feature of symbolic play. But there’s more to it than that – Tristan knows that he is pretending.

Many experts feel that symbolic play is closely linked to the development of language and signifies an important stage in a child’s cognitive development.

‘The ability of children to communicate symbolic meanings, and know that those meanings are symbolic yet interact as if they were not, may be considered an evolved form of communication,’ wrote Inge Bretherton in her book Symbolic Play: The development of social understanding (1984).

Tristan is familiar with boats, as are many young children even if they’ve never been in one. The way the fallen trees are lying on the ground triggered that familiarity in his brain and reminded him of a boat. He knows it isn’t a boat but if he sits inside it and talks of it as if it is a boat, then it becomes one. And he communicates this very effectively to his mother.

She instantly gets what he means and climbs in with him. She knows it isn’t a boat either, but is very happy to play along with the pretence and add to it with sound and movement, all of which not only delights Tristan, but also reinforces his sense of himself as an effective communicator. He is the chief ‘actor’ in this pretend play – but he is the ‘director’ as well. He controls and leads the story and can take it off in any direction, as he does when he gets out of the boat to fetch apples.

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Article written by Anne O’Connor and published in Nursery World © www.nurseryworld.co.uk

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