As children, pretending is second nature. For most of our formative years, we are encouraged to use our imaginations in various ways. Knowing the difference between pretend and real is hard for most young children. As parents, we need to find ways to help teach our kids the difference between what is pretend and what is real.
You may find yourself having the “real versus pretend” conversation with your child this year. Especially during times of the year when make-believe characters present themselves. Like birthday parties featuring Disney princesses. Or holidays like Halloween, Christmas, and Easter.
Here are some great tips for making the concept of pretend versus real something a little easier for your kids to understand.
The Difference Between Pretend and Real
Choose a children’s book to help explain.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
–The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams is a great book to read with your little one if you’re looking for a jumping-off point to discuss pretend versus real. In the story, the boy’s stuffed animal bunny goes through two phases of “realness.” The first is when he becomes loved by the boy. The second time is when a fairy turns the bunny into a live rabbit.
This is a great story for talking to a child about how they may feel about a pretend something they care about, like a stuffed animal. Explain to your child that a real kitty is breathing and alive, whereas their stuffed kitty is made of fabric and buttons. This can help them begin to grasp the concept of what is real and what is make-believe.
Use art to explain the concept.
Another option is to present your child with two comparative images—for example, a cartoon illustration of a dog followed by a photograph of a real dog. Ask your little one what they think the difference is. This can help facilitate a conversation around how dogs are real animals, but we can also make a pretend version of them, like drawing a picture.
Don’t expect this concept to become solidified overnight, however. Toddlers constantly blend real and fantasy concepts during their daily activities. Imaginative play is a healthy aspect of early childhood development and is highly encouraged!
Understand that exploring fantasy is a natural part of a child’s development.
Creativity and problem-solving are nurtured through imaginative play. In a recent study, scholars explained the relationship between pretend play and problem-solving abilities in young children. They concluded that children are more able to problem-solve when they engage in imaginative play.1
As a former school teacher turned stay-at-home mom, I can see the benefits of imaginative play happening in my living room every day. Pretend play clearly nurtures my child’s emotional development, social skills, and problem-solving.
For instance, my 2.5-year-old daughter, Addy, is interested in playing with dolls. At any given moment, she can be found wrapping her dolls in blankets, tucking them away in cabinets, or pushing them in her toy stroller. I see this translated when she interacts with her real baby sister, Sage. Addy uses the same language, tone of voice, and gestures she used with the dolls. This pretend play with the dolls builds her empathy and compassion for her sister. This is awesome to see as a parent!
Debunk the “scary” side of pretend.
Sometimes, pretending can be scary. Monsters and zombies reign as some of Halloween’s prime characters. If your child feels scared by something that is pretend, it is best to debunk the myth by “unwrapping” it right in front of them.
For example, if mommy or daddy has dressed up in something for Halloween that scares your toddler, engage your toddler in the process of “taking off” the costume with you. This helps them see that mommy or daddy is underneath the layers and that the costume being worn was pretend.
Further, let your little one put on and take off their costume using the same dialogue about dressing up and pretending. Many preschool classrooms have a dress-up area where children can experiment with role-playing and imaginative play by putting on clothes and other accessories. Consider adding a dress-up area in your own home! Anything is game for a dress-up corner—from play doctor’s equipment to princess dresses to purses to dinosaur tails.
Understand your child’s mind is different than yours!
It’s important to remember that our young children’s minds operate differently from our adult brains. They process information and emotions in ways that are unique to early childhood. Especially for children of preschool age (2-5), their minds are still developing. These types of concepts around the holidays can be confusing and even frightening.
At the same time, a young child’s ability to use their imagination is also one of their greatest gifts. It’s our job as parents and caregivers to gently guide them through this stage of development as they discern what is pretend and real—and to celebrate their imagination and creativity along the way.
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