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Let’s pretend with preschoolers!
Alison Levitch, M.A., and Sara Gable, Ph.D.,
Department of Human Development and Family Studies, University of Missouri

Play is fun and enjoyable. Just as important, it promotes children's social and emotional development. One particular form of play, pretend, is especially important for young children. And, according to Radu Bogdan, professor of Philosophy at Tulane University in New Orleans, preschoolers are primed and ready to pretend.

During pretend, preschoolers engage in role-play by pretending to be someone, or something, else. A child can become a loved pet, cook, grocery store clerk, father, police officer, FedEx delivery person or superhero. Through role-play, children practice scripts that are part of each role. Scripts are the sequence of events that people follow in their daily lives to complete a task or do a job. Scripts include what a person in a particular role and situation says and does, and in what order. Most adults do not have to actively think about preparing and serving breakfast because it is part of their daily routine. Preschoolers need to experiment with these adult scripts and routines. Pretend play allows children to become someone else and to practice what that person says and does.

Caregivers and teachers can encourage children's pretend play with prop boxes. Prop boxes are bags or boxes that contain real-life items used by people for particular roles. Prop boxes contain items that help children enact scenarios that they have experienced, such as a trip to the doctor’s office, and those they have not experienced, such as superhero or fairy play. A prop box for doctor’s office play may include a stethoscope, tongue depressors, doctor’s coat, blood pressure cuff, clipboard with paper and pens, otoscope (for checking ears and nose), pillows, blankets and adhesive bandages. A prop box for fairy play may include magic wands, fluffy skirts, ballet slippers, crowns and ribbons.

Even a simple prop can encourage creativity as a child becomes someone who is important to him or her. With some space, a few props and their imaginations, preschoolers can play endlessly. Many props can be reused in multiple scenarios. For example, an apron and empty container might one day be part of pretend play in an ice cream store and might be used on another day when preschoolers are pretending to cook dinner like their parents do. Below are some ideas for contents of various prop boxes.

Mail carrier prop box

  • old letters
  • paper and crayons (to write new letters)
  • tape
  • used stamps (to tape onto written letters)
  • shoe boxes (to wrap with newspaper or wrapping paper)
  • mailbag
  • mailbox
  • junk mail and flyers
  • envelopes
  • postcards
  • magazines
  • return address labels
  • hat
  • post office vest/shirt/uniform
  • name tag

Ice cream shop prop box

  • menus or lists of ice cream flavors
  • empty plastic containers
  • ice cream scoop
  • spoons, plates, napkins, bowls, pretend ice cream cones
  • cups
  • hat/store uniform/apron
  • play money

Pretend play is a wonderful way to have fun and promote preschoolers’ understanding of social scripts. The social skills that children develop are also beneficial for other forms of social interaction, such as getting along with peers and friends.

Have fun gathering items for prop boxes and seeing what children do with them. Teachers and caregivers do not need to actively participate. Provide props and the children will do the rest.


Bender, J. (January 1971). Have you ever thought of a prop box? Young Children, 164-169.

Bogdan, R. J. (2005). Pretending as imaginative rehearsal for cultural conformity. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 5, 191-213.

Lindsey, E. W., & Colwell, M. J. (2003). Preschoolers’ emotional competence: Links to pretend and physical play. Child Study Journal, 33, 39-52.


last updated 07/29/05


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