Sparking Communication: Pretend Play

Pretend play helps to facilitate early communication skills that will build the foundation for later language development.

But first, what is pretend play?

Pretend play is the concept that one thing can “be” another. For a child this means a lego block can become a race car or an afternoon at the park turns into an adventure on the high seas. Pretend play is a healthy part of every child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development.

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How does pretend play help with communication?

There are two very important pre-linguistic skills that are promoted through pretend play:

  1. Joint Attention
  2. Gesturing

Caregivers may not believe these two skills relate to communication, but they are two of the most important aspects of early communication abilities.

Joint Attention

Joint attention refers to the moment in which both the child and caregiver are actively paying attention to the same item or activity.

For example, if you say “look” and point to a ball, your child should look in the direction you are pointing.

Children learn very quickly that their caregivers will pay attention to them when they do something. The child will either try to vocalize or gesture towards something in order to get their caregiver’s attention, and then look to make sure the caregiver is paying attention to the same thing they are.

During pretend play, joint attention is given to a toy or activity when both the child and parent are carrying out the activity together and giving it equal attention. In pretend play, joint attention is important because it ensures both communication partners are paying attention to one another and conversing about the same topic.


Gesturing is another important pre-linguistic skill. Gesturing is a form of communication that is used almost every day; people will point, shrug and shake their heads in order to convey messages.

In many ways, gesturing is one of the earliest forms of communication that children learn. Before children are able to vocalize, they will signify what it is they want by reaching out their hands, pointing, and / or shaking their heads. They use this form of communication to ask for things that they want or to try and redirect their caregiver’s attention to something else. This allows them to start conveying more complex messages such as “I want more milk” or even “I want to be picked up”.

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During pretend play, gesturing is used to indicate what it is the child or caregiver is doing with the item. For instance, a caregiver or child might gesture with a doll that it is cooking; they might pretend to stir a pot or even pour a cup of tea. There are an endless number of gestures that are used during pretend play, and they all help to develop a child’s understanding of how to communicate.


When taking part in pretend play with your child, it is important to keep in mind the different ways in which your child is trying to communicate with you and vice versa. There are several different ways you can take part in pretend play activities with your child. We’ve listed a few for you down below:

  • Tea parties
  • Taking plastic food models and “cooking” with them
  • Dressing up
  • Pretending to be a doctor / police officer / veterinarian etc.
  • Playing with dolls
  • Playing house


Lowry, L. (2019). New Research Reveals the Power of Pretending. The Hanen Centre. Retrieved

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