Pretend Play In Therapeutic Preschool Programs

When a child is immersed in pretend play, it helps them expand their thinking abilities. This is because the concept of the pretend play is rooted in imagination, rather than the physical environment or surrounding objects. Some children, particularly children with autism, have difficulty with learning and using pretend play. Around the age of two, children will start to use pretend play in daily activities, such as using a block as a piece of cake or combing a doll’s hair using another block. However, in children with autism, this concept may not come naturally.

It is important to teach pretend play skills, because those skills are closely linked to language skills, which also positively impacts a child’s ability to socialize with classmates in a therapeutic preschool program. Studies have shown that when a child with autism develops pretend play, their language abilities also increase (Rogers, Dawson, & Vismara, 261). In order to develop a child’s pretend play, there are certain steps to take to teach those skills in a therapeutic preschool setting. To reinforce these behaviors, parents can also work with their children at home to develop positive play skills. Here are a few steps that a therapeutic preschool program might use to create a foundation for pretend play skills:

Teach conventional, or functional, play skills
Conventional play teaches children with autism that the actions of others carry a social significance. This means the child learns certain actions from watching other people, which is an important skill to develop during early childhood. In the therapeutic preschool classroom, teachers or therapists will practice this concept with many different toys. For instance, in a classroom setting, the child and teacher might interact by playing with a kitchen set. The teacher will first model a behavior: stirring their “tea” with a spoon, then taking a sip from the cup. The child will also practice pretending to drink from a tea cup, stirring the spoon in the cup, then taking a sip from the cup.

Dolls and animals
Dolls are a great way to help a child with autism understand the cause-and-effect relationship between people and their actions. The dolls and animals act as “agents,” which are objects that cause actions to happen. These types of toys cannot act spontaneously, but they are pretend representations of living things who may not always behave in a predictable manner. To teach this, therapists will use dolls and animals and have the child practice their functional skills. For example, the therapist may show the child how to use a spoon from the kitchen set to feed a doll, then the child will imitate this behavior.

Move from imitation to spontaneous pretend play
In the first two steps, the therapist would model an action and have the child imitate the behavior, in order to develop a foundation for pretend play. However, in this step, the therapist creates an activity where the child needs to pick the toy they are interested in. This decision making helps the child to develop spontaneous pretend play. For example, if the child picks up a kitten, the therapist would comment on the action (“kitty is eating”), then use a related action, such as making another stuffed animal eat with the kitten. If the child does not pick a toy of interest, the therapist would present the child with two different toy options and ask the child to indicate the toy that they prefer. In order to develop a child’s spontaneous pretend play skills, it is important for the therapist to provide familiar and interesting materials, wait for the child to respond to the toys, then follow the child’s lead.

Teach symbolic substitutions
This step helps children have the ability to treat objects as if they were something else. This might look like a child putting a bowl on their head and pretending it is a hat. This shows that the child’s thoughts and ideas can guide their actions. This also means that the child is not specifically fixated on objects. This is a very big step for little children with autism, as well as an important one to develop thinking skills.

Develop symbolic combinations
This step is the most advanced step, as the therapist combines various pretend play actions. This is advanced, because the child is doing more than just one or two related actions. In the therapeutic preschool setting, the therapist would go through whole routines with the child that required several actions. Therapists can work on this with the group in the classroom or individually as the child needs it.

Pretend Play


Rogers, S. J., Dawson, G., & Vismara, L. A. (2012). An early start for your child with autism: using everyday activities to help kids connect, communicate, and learn. New York: Guilford Press.