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  • Kristy Fickinger

Pretend Play: It’s a Pre-Reading Skill


Does your child toss through your recycling bin looking for rockets (toilet rolls), rummage your cupboards to set up a picnic for their teddies, or warn you: the living room floor is lava, and the only way to safety is by hopping on the cushions? Congratulations! Your child is engaging in pretend play, which according to Occupational Therapist and Play Therapist Bridget Sarah is one of the best forms of play there is, lighting up almost every section of your child’s brain (Sarah, 2022).


Symbolic play, where your child substitutes objects, like a box being dolly’s bed, has also been linked to literacy (Stagnitti & Jellie, 2004) – just as written words symbolize spoken language, that cardboard box is not just a bed -it’s a race car, a cubby house, and a robot costume!


While every child is a little different, pretend play skills start to be seen in after baby’s first birthday, emulating activities that they have experienced. This often revolves around food, like giving teddy a drink or stirring the soup. Around two years old children start to be able to string sequences of activities together, like brushing dolly’s teeth before tucking her into bed, and using objects that look very similar to real-life objects in a representative way. Just half a year later children are emulating more complex activities like going shopping for food. Around 3 years pretend play extends to less frequent events, like visiting the doctor or going to the zoo. By 4 years “anything goes” and your leg could be a tunnel, your other child “the monster” and the floor is lava!


When you’re next in the toy library with your little one, you could choose a role play toy that mirrors what your family likes to do, whether it’s sitting around a campfire or making smoothies. Your preschooler might enjoy trying their hand at less frequent experiences like being a hairdresser or going on picnic. And when your adventurous primary school child is commanding you to walk the plank or be wary of the dragon in the laundry, remember: you’re helping their literacy skills too!


Sarah, B. (2022, March 27). ‘Junking up the toy library’. Toy Libraries Australia Melbourne State Conference. Kensington Town Hall, Melbourne


Stagnitt, K., & Jellie, L. (2004). Play and literacy: what is the connection? EQ Australia, (1), 48-49.


Toys pictured include: Melissa & Doug Doctor Role Play Set RP2784, Dentist Set RP2789, Plan Toys Hair Dresser Set RP82, Petite Maison Safari Tent RP88, Melissa & Doug Smoothie Maker Set RP14


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