It’s normal for children age 5 or older to keep playing doctor or house like when they were younger.
Role play is still common at age 5 and continues until about age 8. That means it’s completely normal for school-age children to keep playing doctor or pretending to be their stuffed animals’ parent, just like they did when they were younger.
If your child is under the age of 5, consult our fact sheet on pretend play (in French).
The benefits of role play
When children play pretend, they are doing the following:
Children use toys such as stuffed animals, puppets, figurines, and model cars to engage in role-playing games.
- Articulating their experiences and recreating the world around them. This helps them make sense of things they don’t yet understand well and face their fears about the unknown.
- Learning through imitation. They imitate the adults around them, copying the gestures they see and repeating the words they hear.
- Learning to walk in someone else’s shoes and gradually developing empathy.
- Developing their imagination and learning to make connections between different things.
- Trying to take on the qualities and characteristics of real or fictional people they admire (e.g., superheroes, athletes, teachers).
- Learning to interact and cooperate with others when playing pretend with friends. Playing pretend not only helps children create connections with others, but also define where they fit in a group.
- Learning to improvise. As they play, they learn to accept and follow new rules that come up (e.g., the teacher makes the rules and the student follows them, not the other way around).
Role play at 5 to 6 years old
At this age, children still frequently live in their own little imaginary world. They invent characters to play and take their roles seriously. They also enjoy role-playing with figurines, toy cars, and puppets. They even change their voice to fit the character or the situation they’re acting out.
As your child’s cognitive development progresses, they become capable not only of imagining things, but also of creating images of those things in their mind.
Costumes play another significant role in children’s lives. You may often find that your child wants to wear a costume, even when you leave the house.
Additionally, at this age, children are beginning to learn about everyday life and how to socialize. But they may not always understand certain situations. Role-playing games allow them to develop an understanding of their world. These games are an opportunity for you to discover how your child experiences the world around them and to start talking to them about it.
Role play at ages 6 and up
Around age 6
Children begin to reproduce what they imagine more accurately. Play that involves building structures and acting out scenes (e.g., using chairs, sheets, and cardboard boxes to make a house) also becomes more common.
When playing dress-up, they are more aware that they are playing a character. They are better at distinguishing between reality and make-believe. They are also more conscious of how others see them. Consequently, they may become shy about dressing up when they’re not actually playing.
Around age 7 or 8
The games children play help them understand right and wrong, and the consequences of each. For example, positive behaviour inspires positive emotions, while negative behaviour stirs up less pleasant emotions. Children find it easier to talk and think about their experiences, and this deeper understanding comes out in their role playing.
The story lines they develop for their games become more elaborate and the characters they play are more fleshed out. When they play with other children, their role-playing almost takes the form of improvised skits.
Why does my child enjoy playing the villain?
Some children jump at the chance to play the villain in their games. Villainous roles help them begin to master their fears and feel empowered as they play. It’s rarely something to worry about as long as it’s just play and your child isn’t being aggressive toward others. If your child always wants to play the bad guy, you can suggest other types of roles to try.
If you’re uncomfortable with your child playing the villain, take a look at our fact sheet on war games
How to encourage your child to role play
Children don’t need many toys and games to have fun. Everyday sights and sounds are enough to feed their imaginations. But there are many ways to encourage your child to play make-believe.
Fifteen minutes is all it takes for a child to invent a game. Remember to allow your little one enough time to use their imagination during free play.
- Give your child plenty of time for free play. It’s during unstructured play time that kids can use their imagination to come up with new games. Experts even recommend you let your child experience a little boredom from time to time. This lets them get in touch with their inner self and figure out what they want. Having nothing to do actually leads them to develop their imaginary world and their creativity.
- Stimulate your child’s powers of observation with a game of “I spy.” This will teach them to take careful note of their surroundings when they’re at home or out and about. For example, when you’re at a store, point out the typical features of that type of business. The next time they play store with you or with other children, they’ll remember details such as the cash register, salesclerks, customers, etc.
- Fill a trunk or box with costumes and props to help your child create roles and stories. For example, you can use some of your old clothes. Hats, aprons, dresses, shoes, scarves, glasses, necklaces, and colourful fabrics are all fair game when it comes to playing make-believe!
- Play along when your child pretends you’re the letter carrier delivering mail. When you act out your child’s suggested role, you help stimulate their imagination. But it’s best to let them take the lead. This will encourage their autonomy and creativity.
Things to keep in mind
Role play is common up to the age of 8 and promotes your child’s development.
Role-playing games help children understand the world around them and learn to handle new situations.
When you let your child play on their own, they develop creativity and autonomy.
Reviewed by: Solène Bourque, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: June 2022
Sources and references
Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.
Centre de transfert pour la réussite éducative du Québec (CTREQ). “Le pouvoir du jeu dans le développement des jeunes enfants.” 2022. rire.ctreq.qc.ca
ConnectABILITY. “The importance of role play.” connectability.ca
Ferland, Francine. Et si on jouait? Le jeu au coeur du développement de l’enfant. 3rd ed., Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, “Parents” series, 2018, 240 pp.
Scholastic. “The importance of pretend play.” scholastic.com