Open-ended play is essential for children’s healthy growth and development. It’s so important, pediatricians are even writing prescriptions for it! That’s why at Melissa & Doug we are so excited to be partnering with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), an organization of 67,000 pediatricians, to champion the health benefits of open-ended, creative, brain building play.
“When we saw that an organization of 67,000 pediatricians was putting on record that the best toys for kids are the classics like puzzles, dolls, blocks, vehicles, and toys that get kids pretending and using their imagination, it was a validation of what we’d been doing for three decades!” said Melissa, co-founder of Melissa & Doug. “It was like they had looked through our catalog!”
This is the first in a series of blog posts on the skill-building power of different types of play.
The 15 Best Pretend Play Toys for Kids
These pretend play toys can help build kids’ creative thinking skills and so much more. We’ve included extra play ideas for each to keep the imaginative play going!
- Dust! Sweep! Mop!
Why it’s great: Kids love imitating grown-ups, and this realistic 6-piece cleaning set will have them tidying up in no time!
Sweet detail: The dust pan snaps onto any of the handles!
Skills: Gross motor development, confidence
Countless Ways to Play: Have kids pretend to be in a band and use the cleaning tools as “musical instruments”!
- Grocery Store
Why it’s great: So many realistic details, including a hand-crank conveyor belt, a card-swiping machine, a keypad/calculator, and a cash drawer. Kids can take turns being the grocer or the shopper. Don’t forget the Fresh Mart Grocery Store Companion Collection to help stock the shelves and add to the playful purchasing experience.
Sweet detail: The scanner really beeps!
Skills: Creative thinking, language development
Countless Ways to Play: Suggest making a list and going on a pretend shopping trip to stock a kitchen. (List-making and following a plan are great for executive functioning skills!)
- Slice & Stack Sandwich Counter
Why it’s great: The sturdy wooden deli counter includes a play meat and cheese slicer for the wooden play food, and felt sandwich roll and toppings to create sandwiches ordered from the menu. There is a wooden dressing bottle, play snacks, and a cup with drink insert to round out meals that customers can pay for with the included play money!
Sweet detail: An illustrated guide helps with sandwich prep and shows kids how to use the slicer.
Skills: Counting, sorting, fine motor
Countless Ways to Play: Have kids sort the food pieces into groups: meat, cheese, toppings, and snacks. Talk about what each food tastes like and which are favorites. Besides sandwiches, what can be made with the ingredients?
- Examine & Treat Pet Vet Play Set
Why it’s great: This 24-piece pretend play collection comes with two plush pets (dog and cat), and accessories galore for kids to examine and treat any ailment. The set was recognized by the experts at the Good Housekeeping Institute for how it helps kids develop empathy.
Sweet detail: There’s even a neck “cone” to keep pets from licking!
Skills: Creative thinking, empathy
Countless Ways to Play: Set up an animal hospital! Arrange an exam room, as well as a waiting area filled with stuffed animals, chairs, and some reading material for the pet owners.
- Scoop & Serve Ice Cream Counter
Why it’s great: Kids can pretend to work at an ice cream shop, taking and filling orders. The wooden counter holds eight wooden scoops of different-flavored ice cream, six toppings, a scooper, tongs, and a wooden spoon.
Sweet detail: The scooper first into a hole on top of the scoop to lift, stack, and release!
Skills: Fine motor development, creative thinking, confidence
Countless Ways to Play: Have kids sort the ice cream scoops according to details you give, such as those with chips and without, vanilla ice cream, chocolate ice cream, and “other,” or flavors they like and those they don’t. Then have them count the scoops in each group as they stack them. Which group has the most scoops? The least?
- Top & Bake Pizza Counter
Why it’s great: Create made-the-way-you-like-it pretend pizza with this 34-piece wooden play pizza-making set with counter/pizza oven.
Sweet detail: Pieces stick together with self-stick tabs and can be sliced with the rolling wooden cutter.
Skills: Counting, sorting, fine motor
Countless Ways to Play: Challenge kids to stack all of the wooden topping pieces on the wooden paddle, and then to run to a designated “finish line” without toppling the topping tower!
- Get Well Doctor Activity Center
Why it’s great: The doctor will see you now! This wooden play space has everything kids need for imaginary visits to the doctor’s office! Kids can be the patient or the doctor, the receptionist, or the nurse. Not only is this kind of role play excellent for easing kids’ fears about doctor visits, it also encourages empathy.
Sweet detail: Kids can sign in and check out with a credit card reader and card and fill out a reusable patient file!
Skills: Social-emotional development
Countless Ways to Play: Have kids pretend they are giving a tour of the doctor’s office to a class on a field trip! Talk about what people do in each area and how the equipment is used.
- Chef’s Kitchen
Why it’s great: Easy to assemble, this play kitchen includes a refrigerator/freezer and ice maker, an oven and stovetop with dials that turn, a microwave with turning plate, a sink with moving faucet and handle, a grocery checklist, movable hooks, and ample storage. Budding chefs and home cooks are sure to enjoy years of make-believe meal-making!
Sweet detail: Features an innovative working ice dispenser and two “ice cubes.”
Skills: Creative thinking, problem solving
Countless Ways to Play: Have kids pretend they are the host of a cooking show as they teach the audience how to make their made-up recipes!
- Smoothie Maker Blender Set
Why it’s great: Kids can get creative whipping up their blender concoctions! Use the wooden knife to slice wooden fruits and vegetables, toss in other healthy ingredients, like kale or protein powder, blend it all up! Add a dash of pretend milk, spin the dial to blend, pour into a cup with lid and straw, and serve!
Sweet detail: There’s a double-sided reusable menu card for taking orders, and cup inserts to add realistic color to smoothies.
Skills: Fine motor, language development
Countless Ways to Play: Have kids imagine owning a shake and smoothie shop! What would its name be? What would it look like and what kind of food would be served with smoothies? Make logos, signs, and advertisements for the shop.
- Star Diner Restaurant Play Set
Why it’s great: Kids can serve up delicious diner classics with this 41-piece set! Order on the reusable menu, cook with the durable plastic frying pan and spatula, and serve using a full place setting. Seven wooden food pieces have different food options on either side, and there are even double-sided milkshake and hot drink inserts.
Sweet detail: Ring the bell when meals are ready, and customers can pay their bill (use the dry-erase marker on the guest check) with the included play money.
Skills: Creative thinking, social-emotional development
Countless Ways to Play: Diners are known for their creative lingo (“moo juice” for milk, “wreck ’em for scrambled eggs, “two dots and a dash” for two fried eggs and a strip of bacon). Have kids come up with their own slang!
- Doctor Role Play
Why it’s great: This set includes everything for young doctors to take on a care-giving role in their pretend play: a fully equipped jacket and face mask, stethoscope, reflex hammer, ear scope, syringe, and a name tag to personalize.
Sweet detail: Stethoscope makes sound effects!
Skills: Confidence, empathy
Countless Ways to Play: Have kids come up with details about their doctor character’s life: what’s their specialty? Which patients are they seeing today?
- Mine to Love Twin Dolls
Why it’s great: These adorable twins have coordinating removable rompers and caps and eyes that open and close. Just right for kids 18 months and older, their soft, huggable bodies are lightly scented, with wipe-clean faces and limbs. Available in three different skin tones: Luke & Lucy, Tyler & Taylor, and Sebastian & Sofia. Mine to Love dolls and accessories encourage empathy and help kids express themselves as they explore grown-up roles and responsibilities.
Sweet detail: The babies suck their thumbs or included pacifiers!
Skills: Confidence, empathy
Countless Ways to Play: The babies are crying and need some TLC! Try different comforting techniques, such as rocking, cuddling, bouncing, singing, or helping the twins suck their thumbs or pacifiers.
- Best Friends Magnetic Dress-Up Play Set
Why it’s great: Mix and match coordinating magnetic clothing and accessories to dress two BFFs and their pet puppy and kitten. Includes 2 double-sided wooden dolls, 2 wooden pets, 4 durable stands, and 78 magnetic clothing and accessory pieces.
Sweet detail: The pieces all store in a sturdy wooden tray with a slide-in lid and convenient carrying handle to take the fun on the go.
Skills: Hand-eye coordination, creative expression
Countless Ways to Play: Set a time for 30 seconds and challenge kids to come up with a silly outfit for one of the figures before time runs out. Maybe the cat is wearing sunglasses and a skirt, or a doll dresses in just one shoe and a winter hat. Have kids tell you what makes the outfits silly.
- Take Along Railroad
Why it’s great: Unfold the sturdy wooden case to create an illustrated play surface with built-in train and road tracks for the three wooden wheeled trains and a park ranger vehicle. Set up a bridge and a mountain tunnel with a gondola that slides across the top!
Sweet detail: There’s plenty of room to store all play pieces in the case which has a convenient carrying handle.
Skills: Hand-eye coordination, language development
Countless Ways to Play: Have kids set up all the pieces around the train tracks. Starting at the station, move the train around the track and pretend to be the conductor, talking about points of interest the train passes.
- Cutting Fruit
Why it’s great: This wooden play food set features a wooden knife and seven pieces of sliceable fruit that can be cut into a total of seventeen pieces! With so many pieces, it’s also a great way to introduce counting and the concepts of part, whole, and fractions.
Sweet detail: Held together with self-stick tabs, the food makes a fun and satisfying “CRUNCH” sound when sliced.
Skills: Fine motor, sorting
Countless Ways to Play: Have kids mix different pieces of fruit together to create fun new fruits and name them. For example: a strawberry and a kiwi might make a “kiberry.”
In its “Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era” study, the AAP noted that “High-quality toys in each of these categories can facilitate caregiver-child interactions, peer play, and the growth of imagination”:
Pretend Play Activity centers, dolls, play food, cooking toys, role play sets, puppets, vehicles
Developmental Play Fine motor manipulatives, activity stations, sorters & stackers
Problem Solving Blocks, construction play, puzzles
Creativity Craft kits, coloring activities, painting & drawing
Language & Concepts Alphabet activities, number activities, games
Physical Activity Balls, tunnel, gardening & nature
Here are our product picks for the best toys in some of these pediatrician-recommended categories! More to come: