Headstart for Life

5 Pretend Play Ideas Using Homemade Toys

As a Speech Therapist, one of the areas that we look into when we see a child for assessment is their level of play. Play is often dismissed as having no academic value. However, research has found that a child’s ability to pretend play can be compared to how well that child can tell and comprehend stories. It involves sustained symbolic thinking, use of narratives and a range of other vital literacy skills. As children grow older, their level of play becomes more complex, involving more characters, sequences and representations. Thus, adults find it challenging to enhance the language development of their children when their level of play requires higher level of narrative skills.

When we work with children with language delay, we use toys that we know will encourage certain words or sentences. More importantly, the ability to be flexible and to modify whatever materials we have at hand play an important role during play. However, ideas may not come fast whenever we need them! So, here are few more ideas we can use with our children.

1. Treasure Hunt – a pirate is on a mission to find the hidden treasure! Aye, aye, captain!

treasure 2

Photo Credit: http://www.examiner.com/article/ready-made-scavenger-hunt-clues-for-older-kids-1-10

You will need: cardboard tubes of kitchen paper towels (as a telescope), a shoebox with a few items inside, such as eyeglasses, toy jewellery, coins, shoes, etc. (as a treasure chest), furniture (e.g. sofa, chair), paper (to draw the map on)

Procedures: Create a treasure map that is easy enough for your child to understand. For more ideas how to make a treasure map click here.

  1. Discuss possible use of the materials and set up the play scene with your child.
  2. You can hide the “treasure chest” (shoebox) in your living room or bedroom. Ask your child to find it using the “map” you created. Use the cardboard tube as a telescope to find the “treasure chest”. Design the map with the furniture you have.
  3. You can make suggestions about how the story should develop. For example, ask “How do they get to the mountain? Will they cross a river? How will they get back home? What will they do with the treasure? Do they go somewhere else? Create scenarios whereby he encounters several “problems”, such as the wind is too strong, the “boat” is leaking, the treasure is on top of the mountain, etc. Let your imagination come alive!
  4. Remember to discuss how the story begins, what happens next and how it finishes.

2. Shadow puppets – a fun activity to do at night… or day!

shadow puppets 005

Photo Credit: http://whilewearingheels.blogspot.sg/2011/08/shadow-puppets.html

You will need: torch (flashlight), cut out figures of animals or any characters (use black paper or cardboard)

*For instructions how to make simple shadow puppets, click here.

Procedures: In a dark room, turn on the torch towards the wall of the room. Using the shadow puppets you’ve made, you can create simple stories encouraging your child to use their imagination.

  1. Depending on the characters you made, discuss who the characters of your story are.
  2. Again, you can make suggestions about how the story begins, what happens next and how it finishes.
  3. The story can go on! You can use your hands as shadow puppets to add variety to the story.
  4. Remember to assist your child in developing sequential ideas, problem- solving and in developing his narrative skills.

You may take photos when playing and create a photo story!

3. Space exploration – blast off to infinity and beyond!

Pretend Space Play

Photo Credit: http://www.youclevermonkey.com/2016/01/space-pretend-play.html

You will need: crumpled paper or foil (for asteroids), Lego astronauts or similar, play dough and boxes (for transport vehicles)

Procedures: For more information on how to set-up the play, click here.

  1. Discuss with your child how each material is going to be used. The crumpled paper can be used as asteroids and play dough could be gold buried in the asteroids.
  2. Set up the play scene and ask where the story begins. Make suggestions how the story should develop, such as, an asteroid is colliding with earth and our astronauts must do whatever it takes to save the earth!
  3. Give your child opportunity to develop the story and help him/her when necessary.

4.  Come to the sale! – put your bargaining skills to the test!


Photo Credit: http://www.notimeforflashcards.com/2011/09/pretend-play-grocery-store.html

You will need: chairs, desk, a sign (“shop” or “store”), shopping items (old cereal boxes, milk, etc.), shopping basket, wallet and money (you can use paper money)


  1. Ask your child what kind of shop your child likes to play in. Discuss what roles you could play in (e.g. shop owner, costumer, etc.).
  2. You can help by suggesting what each person should do, how they act and what sort of things they might say.
  3. At the end of the activity, discuss the story and what the different characters said and how they acted.

For more ideas of grocery shopping pretend play, click here.

5. Fashion show – strut your best outfit on the runway!


Photo Credit: http://blog.melissaanddoug.com/2014/04/24/fashion-photography-sessions/

You will need: scarves, hats, towels, old shirts, pants, shoes, slippers, tiara, etc.


  1. It’s time to explore your creativity! You can pretend to put together an outfit using the things you have and walk the “runway” – which could be your hallway or a space in your living room.
  2. Discuss the various roles in the play (e.g. models, photographers, audience).
  3. Play music as you walk the “runway” and take photos as well.
  4. Create opportunities during the play whereby your child will display problem- solving skills. For example, the other pair of the shoes is missing.

These are only few suggestions. Expand… Create… There are many books in libraries or even online sources that will tell you more about using homemade toys. Many people enjoy making toys as it allows them to design toys and materials to adapt to their children’s needs. Also, this can save you money!

Remember, your play should be fun, interesting and meaningful. Follow your child’s lead. Experience your childhood again and enjoy the time you will spend in playful learning with your child.



Schwartz, S. (2004). The new language of toys: Teaching Communication Skills to Children with Special Needs, 3rd Edition. Woodbine House.

Stagnitti, K. & Jellie L. Play to Learn: Building Literacy in the Early Years







"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Jona

Jona has a passion in educating and empowering parents and families of children of all abilities to be part of the social community. She has been working with children with special needs for more than 10 years and has special involvement in the intervention of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and apraxia/dyspraxia of speech.

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