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10 Ways to Encourage Your 3-Year-Old's Pretend Play

One of my favorite aspects of life with a toddler is watching her play.

At three, my daughter’s imagination is really taking flight.

She’s constantly exploring her environment and surroundings and asking countless questions. Her curiosity often leads the way as she seeks more and more complex games and ways to solve problems.

For toddlers, play isn’t simply about “fun and games.” It’s essential to their development. It’s how they learn to make sense of the world, to communicate, and to build social skills.

Pretend play allows young children to safely explore the various roles that are modeled for them. Sometimes I’ll overhear my daughter putting her toys in time out or scolding them for some unknown transgression. And while it’s tempting to laugh at the sight of a teddy bear in the naughty chair, I know that there’s more going on beneath the surface of my daughter’s games.

Encouraging pretend play is am important task of parenting. Here are 10 simple ways to encourage your 3-year-old’s imagination, and to help her build skills she’ll need as she gets older.

Here’s to happy playing!

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  • Break the Rules 1 of 10
    Break the Rules
    Who says that DOLLS have to live in the dollhouse? Encourage your child to play with her toys in a variety of ways. Letting your child take the lead in imaginative play will build her confidence and allow her to explore other roles. See what she can come up with ... it might surprise you!
  • Make a Mess 2 of 10
    Make a Mess
    For "messy" play, such as with paint, Play-Dough or dirt, you may want set up a special area or even head outdoors. Messy play allows children to experience a variety of textures and is great for fine motor skill development.
    Photo: Falashad/Flickr
  • Get out the Costumes 3 of 10
    Get out the Costumes
    Costumes are such a fun way to encourage role-playing and pretending. A piano-playing fairy princess one minute can be a heroic fire fighter the next!
    Photo: Abby Batchelder/Flickr
  • Make Work Fun! 4 of 10
    Make Work Fun!
    Whether you're raking leaves or baking cookies, your toddler can help and have fun at the same time. Pretend you're preparing a dessert feast for the King and Queen's royal dinner party, or that you own a bakery in the middle of town, or have your little one set the scene herself.
    Photo: Abby Batchleder/Flickr
  • Give Them Space 5 of 10
    Give Them Space
    At age 3, toddlers are beginning to play with other children instead of exclusively solo play. Allowing your toddler the space to play with other children builds crucial social skills.
    Photo:Strocchi/Flickr
  • Don’t Be Afraid of a Little Dirt 6 of 10
    Don't Be Afraid of a Little Dirt
    Outdoor play allows children to act out different roles than indoor play. A little dirt or sand never hurt anyone!
    Photo:Hoyasmeg/Flickr
  • Give Them the Right Tools 7 of 10
    Give Them the Right Tools
    An enriching play space is key to imaginative play. It doesn't take much (just think of all the uses for a cardboard box!) but giving your toddler the right tools to play will get their imaginations running wild.
    Photo: Tiarescott/Flickr
  • Get Wet 8 of 10
    Get Wet
    Water can be another great tool to spark the imagination. Whether it's a sprinkler, a water table, or a simple springtime rain shower, many creative scenarios can take place with water. Toys and dolls can get baths and little scientists can experiment to determine which items float and which items sink. The possibilities are endless!
    Photo: Clarity/Flickr
  • Have Fun! Create! 9 of 10
    Have Fun! Create!
    I have to admit that Play-Doh is my arch nemesis. But it's one of the only activities that my children love doing together, and they cannot get enough. They work together to make "pizzas," build houses, mold animals and more.
    Photo: DBrekke/Flickr
  • Support Their Natural Creativity 10 of 10
    Support Their Natural Creativity
    I love watching my 3-year-old's creativity in action. I keep a stash of basic supplies in Command Central in my home, the kitchen. She can easily get out the crayons, colored pencils, paper and stickers and entertain herself throughout the day.

Mary Lauren Weimer is a social worker turned mother turned writer. Her blog, My 3 Little Birds, encourages moms to put down the baby books for a moment and tell their own stories. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

More by Mary Lauren:

How to Think Like a Toddler

Ten Truths about Toddlers: What Parents Should Know

Potty Training Tips from the Experts: Moms!

Lead Photo Credit: Jenni from the Block/Flickr

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