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As families spend more time at home together due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, parents of preschoolers have found themselves echoing a similar refrain: My kid wants to play pretend all the time. Some find it easy, others think it’s tedious, but, as parents spend more and more time in their kids’ pretend worlds, questions have popped up about what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to pretend play.

The good news (or not, depending on your skills at imbibing fake tea): Pretend play is enormously beneficial for kids. “A child’s imaginative and creative play is essential for the development of their social, emotional and cognitive skills, in addition to being a way to explore and discover the world,” says Donna Housman, Ed.D., founder and CEO of the Housman Institute. “There are so many benefits to this kind of play, including the development of self-control and self-regulation, increased concentration, the ability to explore developmental skills through an area of interest, and an enjoyment of the process of learning rather than the product — all while also fostering social-emotional development and academic success.”

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Pretend play is even more essential now, or during other periods of great stress. “In crisis-ridden times such as these, it is more important than ever to allow kids time to pretend play,” says Carlin Barnes, M.D., a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist, co-author of Understanding Mental Illness and co-founder of Healthy Mind MDs. “Engaging in pretend play may very likely help your child deal with anxiety and stress as well as help your child feel more secure, safe and reassured.”


There are ways for parents to support pretend play and use it to help gauge children’s emotional temperatures — and in ways that don’t involve transforming into a superhero sidekick for hours on end, weeks at a time.

In the beginning, it’s easy to support pretend play.

Children start to play pretend between 14 months and 18 months of age, and luckily they don’t require much to get started. At this stage, “parents can support pretend play by having plenty of interesting items handy to encourage imagination and creativity, for example, cardboard boxes, building blocks, a family of dolls and dinosaurs,” Dr. Barnes says.

As they get older, “Let your child decide what they want to engage in,” says psychologist Reena Patel, L.E.P., B.C.B.A. “You can have family theater nights with a box full of supplies. Your child can build props, their clothing and any items they need to share their story. Or go outside and use nature as the toys and let your child create a scene. Finally, model what it looks like to pretend. Loosen up your structure and allow for some clutter and chaos. Be an animal or character. Children watch what we do and learn skills from our non-verbal cues. Let’s encourage this more.”

And while parents have control over most of the family dynamic, pretend play is one area where they should take a backseat. “Allowing children to be the director and producer —the ‘boss’ — is critical to imaginative play,” Dr. Housman says. “With this creative control, children are able to express themselves in an uninhibited manner and explore their interests in a supported environment. In turn, this feeds their curiosity and stretches their mind to promote an interest in exploration and further learning.”

Many of the “red flags” parents see in their child’s play is nothing to worry about.

For starters, parents may wonder if acting out plots of TV shows and movies mean they’re getting too much screen time and aren’t developing their own imaginations. “Most of the children I work with know every word of the movie Frozen and repeat them often,” says Tasha Brown, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist. “I would only be concerned if your child is unable to generate language or ideas.”

The use of weapons like toy guns and swords is another area of parental concern, but their appearance in play isn’t troubling in and of itself. “This does not mean that they’re going to be violent, and it’s also developmental appropriate,” Dr. Brown says. “Children very often explore these types of play.” She adds that parents can set boundaries around this type of play, or redirect children to other areas, if it seems to be too much.

There are a few actual worrisome signs to watch out for. “Pretend play that involves recurring themes of violence, aggression or inappropriate content may be a red flag that warrants further evaluation,” Dr. Barnes says. “Another possible red flag is if your child suddenly loses interest or no longer seems to enjoy pretend play.” Using pretend play to get out of things consistently, or finding that pretend play is interfering with their ability to learn and socialize appropriately, could be another concern, says Stephanie A. Lee, Psy.D., of the Child Mind Institute.

If children keep coming back to play they find worrisome, “Parents can inquire with minimal attention about where kids are learning about these type of themes to ensure safety and appropriate monitoring,” Dr. Lee says. “Parents can also discourage less preferred themes by reacting with minimal attention and enthusiastically encouraging alternative or prosocial themes.”

If you’re feeling pretend-play fatigue, there are some ways to take part that are less draining.

First of all, know you’re not alone. “I very often hear parents say that they do not enjoy their child’s pretend play,” Dr. Brown says.

She finds it helpful for parents to schedule and block out five or ten minutes to really focus on pretending. “This way you know your child is getting your attention and can expect it daily,” she says. “This may also help limit the amount of time you’re fully engaged in the play. Your child is free to engage in pretend play without you, but this will let them know they’ll get it from you at some point.” For this strategy to work, parents really have to focus all your attention on their children during those short bursts of play (no cell phones).

Parents can also outsource it to someone else. “Enlist the help of other family members — older siblings, grandparents — to join in on the play,” Dr. Barnes says. If parents have the luxury of using a babysitter, that might translate into some extra playtime for your child.

And if there’s no one else to take on sidekick duties, while parents shouldn’t direct pretend play, there’s nothing wrong with steering it in a preferred direction “If there’s a specific theme or activity you enjoy or think you can tolerate more — you’re a better customer at the store than you are a dog at the farm, for example — think about creating a brief time a few days a week when you make yourself available to set up the fake grocery store,” Dr. Lee says.

Knowing the stages of pretend play can help parents know what’s coming.

While every child is different, most pretend play develops along this pattern, according to Patel:

  • 14 months – 18 months: “This is where you see play based on every day, familiar activities,” she says. “This is also where children perform one pretend action away from themselves and usually with an adult or doll.”
  • 19 months – 22 months: “Pretend play emerges based on everyday common activities. An example would be when a child uses a spoon to feed their stuffed bear.”
  • 2 years – 3 years: “You start to see emotions being included, verbal planning and sequencing of several actions within a theme,” Patel says. “Multiple steps are included in this play. For example, a doll is fed with a spoon, then a napkin is used to wipe her mouth and then the doll is given a cup to drink water.”
  • 3.5 years – 4 years: “Pretend play is based on events a child has seen or heard about, but not personally experienced,” she says. “Parents will see inflections in voice, or baby talk for the doll, and more use of language. Play includes short sequences of activities that are now time-related. At this age you now see non-symbolic items become toys. For example, blocks become cars and wooden sticks become wands.”
  • 5 years – 6 years: “You see multiple roles: mother, father, teacher,” she says. “This is a higher level of pretend play with multiple language tones, use of inference and gestures to communicate.”

And when does it stop? Possibly never. “While most kids will substitute what we traditionally think of as pretend play with dolls or action figures with books, art, video games, or sports as they progress through elementary school,” Dr. Lee says, “some kids and honestly adults have a persistent desire to continue to engage with imaginary themes through art, theater, creative writing, and so on throughout their lifespan.”

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7 Ways to Play With A3 - Play Food Set

My kids have a pretend kitchen that they LOVED when it was new to them. They spent at least an hour every day playing with it. After a couple of weeks, they got kind of bored, though, and I found myself just picking up the play food and dishes off the floor after they were dumped out and not played with.

This is the first day that we had the pretend kitchen… we hadn’t even gotten the food and dishes in it yet.

I contemplated getting rid of the entire playset but knew I would regret it as soon as it was gone.

The only option was to find ways to make it more fun and exciting for the kids so I began brainstorming some ways to play with it.

It worked! I taught the kids a couple of new ways to use the pretend kitchen playset and they fell in love with it all over again.

7 Ways to Play With A - Play Food Set

7 Ways to Play With a Pretend Kitchen

  1. Cooking/Following recipes
    I know that most toddlers can’t read but that doesn’t mean they can’t follow directions! Using pictures with just a few words is all they need, and usually, they can figure it out from there. They use the pictures as a guide and eventually, they may start recognizing the words that are included with the picture. Even if they can’t figure out what the recipe is calling for, they can still pretend to create a meal or a treat from a recipe. If they see you do it when you’re cooking real food, they’ll be so excited to be able to do it with their play food. You can create recipes using Canva (if you click the link it’ll take you right to their recipe card template!) or even just Microsoft Word. Keep it short and simple, and don’t forget the pictures! The recipes (I’ve only made 2) I created for them are not even close to as cool as some of the ones I’ve found on Pinterest so I definitely plan on stepping my game up there.
  2. Grocery shopping/Putting food away
    We don’t have a grocery store set up, but I just take small baskets and sort out some of the food that way and then they come through with their shopping carts and choose which food they would like to “buy”. We use play money for this.. we actually made it ourselves and it looks NOTHING like real money aside from the fact that it is green. You could use monopoly money or anything else you have. After they “buy” their food, they push the shopping cart “home” to the kitchen playset and begin putting it away. When I first had this idea I was worried they wouldn’t want to put it away but turns out they really like to do it! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because when I go grocery shopping they love to help put groceries away.

  3. Restaurant
    This one is their FAVORITE!! We use the play money, a tablet, and a pencil. I sit at the table and they come over to take my order. Then they go and prepare/cook whatever it is I ordered and serve it to me. It’s so much fun. I want to take this a step further and make a menu for them soon. There are a couple menus I’m considering.. the first one you can purchase (this isn’t an affiliate link, however) and the second one could be made at home. If you don’t feel like creating your own you can buy one for pretty cheap on Teachers Pay Teachers (pictured below).6f80c829b3cc3cb46ec0ddad52ef8300
  4. Setting the table
    Josie really enjoys this one. I used paper and traced a toy plate, fork, spoon, knife, and cup onto 2 different pieces of paper. I also wrote the word out for what goes where because we are working on recognizing words. When the kids are setting the table they use the paper as a placemat and place everything where it belongs. We usually do it before we play restaurant.IMG_7652
  5. Washing dishes
    This one is fun because they love to “wash” dishes. I’ll admit, this is the one we do the least often because it usually results in them asking for real water in their kitchen playset. I let them do this sometimes. Other times I tell them to just pretend or to pick something new to play.
  6. Pizza shop
    I have a small tote where I store all of their “pizza” pieces. These pieces were all cut out on paper, but plan to re-do them on felt soon. I cut a circle on brown paper for the crust, small red circles for the pepperoni, and a bunch of small yellow pieces for the cheese. You could also include green peppers, mushrooms, ham, pineapple, etc.
  7. “House”
    I’m honestly just not sure what else to call this one… Josie likes to play mommy and feed her baby doll. She puts her baby’s highchair right next to the kitchen and cooks for her, then pretends to feed her the food.IMG 7640 e1531188411228 - Play Food SetIMG 4112 1 e1531188345322 - Play Food SetSometimes she sneaks real food for her baby doll

Usually, throughout all of the “cooking” activities, they wear a chef hat and apron that I picked up at Dollar Tree.

You will definitely need play food to go along with the kitchen playset. The pretend kitchen comes with a little, but not enough.

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harmony kitchen full set p47096 831084 image - Play Food Set

Let’s rustle up some deliciously mouth-watering imaginary feasts!

Children love playing different roles and scenarios in imaginative play. Play kitchens are a particularly popular resource for pretend play, as it gives children the opportunity to imitate situations that they are familiar with. Whether they are playing the role of a head chef, waiter, kitchen porter or parent at home, play kitchens allow children to imagine themselves in new roles and cook up exciting scenarios.

Kitchen role play isn’t just a fun activity for children, it also benefits a child’s development! Young children learn through play and are always exploring and experimenting – so we’ve compiled a list of the key benefits that play kitchens give children.

Encourage your budding little chefs to cook up the ultimate fantasy banquet today!

The Benefits of Play Kitchens for Children

Creativity and Imagination

Kitchen role play is an exciting and fun activity, which stretches the children’s imagination and enriches their creativity. It gives children the chance to concoct their own imaginative recipes and explore different pretend ingredients. They enjoy experimenting with the various pretend utensils and appliances to create imaginative scenarios, either mimicking actions of adults they have seen or formulating their own uses for the objects they use.

Language and Communication

Role play gives children the opportunity to express themselves creatively and engage in storytelling. Children vocally enact the role that they are playing, which enhances their language development and communication. Kitchen role play widens a child’s vocabulary as they begin to learn the names of new objects and foods, whilst also using new verbs such as “cook” and “stir” and opposites such as “hot” and “cold”.

Social Skills and Teamwork

Play kitchens encourage the little ones to engage in play with other children, which enhances their social development. They create discussions around who will play what role, what they should cook and how they are going to do it. This inspires children to work as a team and cooperate so that they can get the job done quicker – encouraging them to share, take turns and listen to other people’s opinions and ideas about what to cook.

Planning and Organisation

Children typically enjoy the process of organising their pretend kitchens – determining different roles and organising different food types into sections. They tend to discover that kitchen play becomes a more enjoyable activity if their play kitchen is organised. Children may store their pretend ingredients away in the cupboards and neatly organise the plates and cutlery for their guests – all whilst planning what they are going to cook next and who will get what meal!

Life Skills

When children engage in kitchen role play, they are acting out real life occupations and situations that they are familiar with. This teaches children the basic cooking and cleaning concepts, which enriches their understanding of the world and develops their life skills. Whether they are pretending to set the table, wash the dishes or bake a cake, kitchen role play tends to heighten their empathy for others because it gives them an insight into what it would be like to cook in the kitchen or work as a chef.

Independence and Self-Confidence

By providing children with their own play kitchen, it gives them a sense of independence, which increases their self-confidence. They fully adopt the role of working in a kitchen and become responsible for keeping it clean, organising the belongings and caring for the different items in the kitchen. When children undertake real life kitchen roles and play superior roles such as head chefs, they also start to develop great leadership qualities as well.

Problem Solving

Kitchen role play enhances a child’s cognitive ability and problem-solving skills. If problems arise, such as a fork going missing, it forces children to come up with a solution – whether that is substituting the fork for something else or going out of their way to find the lost item.


Play kitchens also help to improve a child’s numeracy skills. Children may count how many plates they need, weigh ingredients or count how many minutes the food needs to be in the oven for, which enhances their mathematical learning while they play.

Visual Recognition

Play kitchens give children the opportunity to identify new objects and food. You can stock play kitchens with a variety of items, which also gives children the chance to categorise the different food types and utensils as well.

Healthy Food Choices

By promoting different types of pretend food, such as fruitvegetableseggs and meat, it encourages children to make healthier food choices. They imagine the food they have cooked in appetising scenarios, which tends to encourage them to try eating that food in real life as well.

Fine Motor Skills

Play kitchens also help to develop a child’s fine motor skills, as they are picking up accessories in their kitchen and using the tools in play situations.

Time to pop on those little aprons and whip up some yummy imaginary goodness!


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Introducing kids to cooking can be more than fun. It can teach skills and perhaps set children up to be healthier eaters.

Temporary mess in the kitchen, lifelong payoff.

Danielle McWilliams cooks with her daughters Reese, 7, right, and Remi, 4, at their New Jersey home. Along with the usual cupcakes, crispy treats and from-scratch cookies, they make tarallis, an Italian family traditional treat that’s a cross between

Here’s a look at some of the latest gear for budding chefs, from toys to the real thing.


Play kitchens were a coveted toy at least as far back as the 1950s, when Sears’ catalog offered the all-steel Rite-Hite range, fridge and working sink for just under $30. Little Tikes toy company introduced their Efficiency Kitchen in 1977, with a microwave, range, fridge and sink, and followed up with the 1980s Party Kitchen, featuring a jaunty green canopy, fold-down peninsula, sink, two burners, cupboards and a wall-mounted phone.

If you’re feeling nostalgic, there are loads of vintage play kitchens for sale online. And Little Tikes is still in the marketplace, with the Home-Grown Kitchen, a corner-shaped unit with battery-driven cooking sounds like boiling water and sizzling stove.

Should you be in the market for a play kitchen that looks like a grown-up designer one, you’ll find many options.

Pottery Barn Kids and West Elm have collaborated on a midcentury-modern toy kitchen with two-burner stove, oven and sink set in a poplar frame with white MDF (medium-density fibreboard) cabinetry. Or choose the Chelsea kitchen, with Shaker-style cabinets in white, gray, blush pink or black, with brass-toned hardware.

For play prep gear, Pottery Barn Kids’ cream-colored, solid-wood toaster pops out two perfectly done slices of (fake) bread with a flip of the lever. And there’s an Italian cookery bundle with a metal pasta pot, sieve, ladles, serving dishes, and soft faux ravioli and bow-tie pasta made of felt.

Melissa & Doug’s sliceable, wooden, cookie dough set comes with icing toppers, a tray, spatula and oven mitt for some sweet pretend baking. Start the play meal off with a tasty salad, using their 50-piece set of felt greens, veggies, chicken and shrimp, as well as bowl and utensils. Self-stick tabs give the vegetables a crunchy sound when sliced. Time for a beverage? A coffee maker comes with three pods, faux cream and sugar, and a menu card so little baristas get the order right.


Cooking in a real kitchen with kids isn’t just about ingredients, recipes and prep, says Food Network star Guy Fieri. “It’s about harnessing imagination, empowerment and creativity.”

Parents should begin with basic food safety, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Start by pulling long hair back; wash hands, surfaces and tools; separate raw and cooked foods. The association outlines the ages at which skills can be introduced. The youngest – around 3-5 years – can wash fruits and veggies, mix ingredients in a bowl, wipe counters and cut cookie dough. Older kids can gradually be given other utensils, ovens to watch and so on.

A sturdy stool is important to get young kids up to counter height.

New Jersey mom Catherine Santonacita recommended Guidecraft’s hardwood and plywood stool, with a non-slip mat, and foldable side panels equipped with message boards. Her daughter Emilia’s been using it since she was 2; she’s now 4, and the stool’s adjustable feature has been convenient.

A cute apron helps kids get down to work. Jennice House’s aprons feature whimsical animal prints in fun colors; the cotton apron ties in the back and has an adjustable neck strap.

Santonacita, and the team at America’s Test Kitchen, give high marks to Opinel’s Le Petit Chef knife set with built-in finger rings to help kids learn proper holds, as well as a plastic finger guard.

Marisa Issa of Los Angeles has been whipping up tasty things with her daughter Samantha since Sam was about 4. “We started by baking banana bread using Julia Child’s recipe, since we always have ripe bananas around.”

Klutz Kids’ Magical Baking Set, one of Sam’s favorite 7th birthday gifts, includes tools, decorations and recipes to make imaginative treats like mermaid-themed pies, fairy-size cheesecakes and pretzel wands.

Baketivity’s 31-piece set has a bunch of recipes, kid-size tools, and a silicone baking mat printed with helpful measurements.

Pizza-making is a great family activity. In Chicago’s western suburbs, Matt and Lindsey Martin and their boys Keegan, 8, and Landen, 5, use an Ooni pizza oven for a Neopolitan fired pizza. The kids’ favorite part of the process “is seeing the pizza transform from the ingredients they put together to a final product that they can eat and others enjoy too,” says Matt.

Growing up in an Italian family, Danielle McWilliams made a lot of pizza as a child; she now does it with her daughters Reese and Remi. They’re big bakers, too.

“We make cupcakes and Rice Krispie treats, scratch cookies for holiday presents and parties,” says McWilliams. They also make Italian tarallis, a cross between a breadstick, bagel and pretzel.

Parents might consider in-person or online cooking classes for kids. Raddish Kids, Tiny Chefs, The Dynamite Shop, America’s Test Kitchen, The Kids Table and Chop Chop Family all offer either digital sweet and savory recipes and instructions and/or online classes and videos.

Some have interactive features; kids can download photos of their finished dishes and receive achievement badges. Chop Chop has a print magazine, as well.

Santonacita says introducing her kids early to cooking has led to some unexpected and rather sophisticated results.

“Emilia’s an adventurous eater,” she says. “She likes the duck poutine and white wine mussels at our local restaurant. She is not a cheap date.”

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