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Pretend Play with Big Boxes

girl draws on box

About this Video

Pretend play is also called “make-believe,” “dramatic play,” or “symbolic play.” Pretend play contributes to young children’s development and well-being in a variety of ways. This video shows two examples of children’s pretend play. In the first part, Hannah (20 months) plays with plastic dishes and two large boxes. In Part 2, Isaac (age 5) and his older sister, Ellie (age 7), work on a robot costume they have planned together.

  • A toddler pretends.
    Hannah begins to play alone, talking to herself while she enters the door to the box. She sits down among some plastic dishes left over from an earlier “tea party” with her older sister and cousin. Young children often talk to themselves or to their toys during pretend play. Hannah picks up a cup and saucer, places them in front of her, and tips the tea pot slightly, pretending to pour. Such solitary pretend play is typical of toddlers, but they often enjoy pretending with others. In fact, Hannah soon invites her mother into her play. She picks up the dishes and walks toward her mother (who is shooting the video), saying “Ma-ma. Mama.” She sets the dishes down on a low, wide box covered by what looks like a tablecloth. She then walks back to the first box to gather up the remaining dishes. Pretending to share food and drink is a common theme in young children’s make-believe play. Some experts feel that it reflects a child’s interests in food, daily family life, or building good relationships with others.
  • Older children make a costume.
    Children of preschool age and older often like to wear costumes during their pretend play. A costume can help a child feel that he is “being someone else,” adding complexity to the pretend play. Planning and creating a costume requires the child to go back and forth between make-believe and “reality”—recalling what he knows about the pretend role and thinking about how to make the costume to suit the role. For example, Isaac and Ellie know that a robot is not likely to be soft, so before the activity shown in this video, they chose sturdy cardboard boxes for their costume. Because they believe that a robot needs a body and a head, they selected a smaller box for the head and a larger one for the body—but not so large that it will keep them from walking while wearing it. They also asked an adult to help them mark and cut holes in the boxes as needed, and they asked for some pieces of aluminum foil, which can be seen on the floor near them as they work. The video shows the children coloring the robot head; they have already drawn control buttons on the body. By the time they are ready to try on the costume, they have put some foil on the head. (The video does not show them adding the foil.) Their collaboration is relatively smooth, which is not always the case when siblings work together, but here they have the common goal of creating a costume they can both use. At the end of the video, Isaac wears the costume and walks around while Ellie encourages him (“You look just like a robot!”)
  • The children solve problems during play.
    The video shows another important feature of pretend play. Children often have to quickly solve problems that might get in the way of their play. For example, Hannah, at 20 months old, is still learning how to go easily from sitting to standing and walking. In the video, she tries to stand up inside the box and walk out while holding some dishes. She attempts to stand, bumping her head slightly on the box “doorway.” She decides to crawl out instead, which means she must let go of some dishes. She figures out what to do and continues to play. Five-year-old Isaac also faces a challenge. He is eager to wear the robot costume but realizes that he won’t be able to put on the body while wearing the head (a problem his older sister seems not to have noticed). He removes the head, picks up the larger box, and announces “Only this is first!” He is then able to put on the whole costume with Ellie’s help.
  • Children pretend for several reasons.
    Pretend play is fun for children, but it can serve several additional purposes. It can be a time for the child to interact with family members or friends and to use social skills. Pretend play can allow children to reimagine interesting past experiences, to practice skills they would like to gain, such as pouring liquid into a cup to share, or to think about things that might happen. Sometimes they imagine situations that they wish were real, such as having a different identity (for example, a robot) for a while, or having dolls and toys that can talk. Or they may imagine challenging situations—things that are difficult or frightening—and work out ways to master them in their pretend play.
  • Families support pretend play.
    Young children typically begin to pretend during their second year of life. Parents may notice that a child’s make-believe becomes more complex over time. For example, by age 5, Hannah’s “sharing food” play may expand to draping a pillowcase “tablecloth” over a cardboard box and serving a make-believe meal to two friends using play food they have made from paper.

Providing “props” is a good way for adult family members to support young children’s pretend play. As the activities in this video show, children do not need expensive, complicated toys for their pretend play. Boxes of various sizes and shapes serve as a playhouse, a table, and parts of a costume. The boxes, toy dishes, fabric, markers, and aluminum foil that Hannah, Isaac, and Ellie used were all provided by their parents and grandparents. Children can also use old clothing to make costumes; instead of a purchased tea set, a child could use some of the family’s sturdy cups.



Part 1

Hannah enters one of the boxes through its doorway, talking to herself. She sits down and pretends to pour from the teapot. She drops the teapot, then picks it up along with a cup and saucer. Holding all of them, she struggles to stand. She then scoots out of the box, stands again, and walks toward the camera.

Hannah: Ma-ma! Mama!

Mother: Mmm.

Hannah sits down on a piece of blue fabric on the floor, still holding the plastic dishes. She then stands and places the dishes on a box that has been covered with lavender fabric. She walks back to the large box and kneels down to pick up more dishes.

Part 2

Isaac and Ellie use markers to decorate a box that will serve as the head of a robot costume. Younger children are playing in the background.

Isaac: (stepping back then bending down) We need to draw inside.

He colors inside the box briefly, then stands and works on the outside again. Ellie continues to color the outer surface of the box.

Ellie: (pressing some aluminum foil onto the robot head) That looks good. Now let’s try it on.

Ellie holds up the box while Isaac bends over; together they get it onto his head. He adjusts it while Ellie removes a container of markers from the large box that is lying on the floor.

Ellie: (picking up the large box) Hm. This looks good, too. We should put this one on.

Isaac begins to remove the box from his head, squatting down and carefully lifting it, then setting it on the floor.

Isaac: (standing and reaching for the large box) Only this is first!

He maneuvers the box so that he can slide it over his body. Ellie carefully puts the robot’s head into place.

Isaac: And then this!

Ellie places the robot head over Isaac’s head. Now in full costume, he walks through the doorway and out of the room.

Ellie: You look just like a robot!

Isaac walks in the hallway, turns around, and walks back into the room.

Isaac: I think I [unintelligible].

Illinois Early Learning Guidelines for Children Birth to Age Three and How They Were Met

This list shows how Hannah’s actions in the video relate to some standards in the birth-to-three guidelines.

Self-Regulation: Foundation of Development
Attention Regulation
Children demonstrate the emerging ability to process stimuli, focus and sustain attention, and maintain engagement in accordance with social and cultural contexts.

  • Indicators for children (16-24 months):
    • Works to find solutions to simple problems and/or obstacles, e.g., attempts to climb onto a piece of furniture in order to retrieve a toy
    • Remains focused for longer periods of time while engaged in self-initiated play
  • Action:
    • Hannah had difficulty standing and carrying dishes while inside the box. She moved to a crawling position, set dishes on the floor, and was then able to stand and carry them.
    • Hannah stayed focused on playing with, moving, and setting up the tea set. She worked out a solution to the problem of moving multiple pieces of the tea set by making more than one trip.

Developmental Domain 2: Physical Development & Health
Gross Motor
Children demonstrate strength, coordination, and controlled use of large muscles.

  • Indicators for children (16-24 months): Holds objects or toys while walking, e.g., pulls a car by a string while walking around the room
  • Action: Hannah moved from sitting to standing, crawled out of the box, stood from a crawling position, carried objects while walking, and set them on a box in another part of the room.

Developmental Domain 4: Cognitive Development
Concept Development
Children demonstrate the ability to connect pieces of information in understanding objects, ideas, and relationships.

  • Indicators for children (16-24 months): Pretends to use objects in their intended manner, e.g., holds a play phone to ear and engages in a conversation by babbling
  • Action: Hannah made pouring motions from the teapot into the tea cup and set the objects on a box as if setting a table.

Developmental Domain 4: Cognitive Development
Symbolic Thought
Children demonstrate the understanding of concepts, experiences, and ideas through symbolic representation.

  • Indicators for children (16-24 months): Engages in pretend play with familiar objects and experiences, e.g., places baby doll in stroller and pushes the stroller
  • Action: With the toy teapot and cup, Hannah pretended to be pouring liquid from a teapot into a teacup. Hannah set the dishes on a box covered with a cloth, as if setting the table.

Approaches to Learning
Persistence, Effort, & Attentiveness
Children demonstrate the ability to remain engaged in experiences and develop a sense of purpose and follow-through.

  • Indicators for children (16-24 months): Engages for longer periods of time when trying to work through tasks, e.g., fits puzzle pieces together
  • Action: Hannah remained involved in this multiple-step play activity, from pretending to pour while sitting inside the box to moving the dishes to a fabric-covered box near her mother, where she set them on the table and went back for more dishes.

Approaches to Learning
Creativity, Inventiveness, & Imagination
Children demonstrate the ability to use creativity, inventiveness, and imagination to increase their understanding and knowledge of the world.

  • Indicators for children (16-24 months):
    • Engages in pretend play with familiar objects and experiences, e.g., places baby doll in stroller and pushes the stroller
    • Engages familiar adults in pretend play, e.g., hands the adult a play cup and pretends to pour “tea” into it
  • Action: Hannah engaged in pretend play with a teapot and teacup. She vocalized to her mother, saying “Mama,” which may have been an invitation to her mother to play with her.
Reviewed: 2017