Make-Believe Play

Imaginative Play, Free Play

UDL 5.3

Make-Believe is a play-based learning strategy in which students engage in imaginary exercises while the teacher observes and offers support in order to promote students’ critical thinking, language and social skills. First, the teacher determines the skills to focus on (e.g. sharing, resolving conflict, engaging in conversation). Next, the teacher prepares aligned areas of play within the classroom. Students take the lead in actively exploring the areas, initiating play and engaging in make-believe scenarios. As students are engaging in imaginative play, the teacher observes peer dialogue and interactions. The teacher scaffolds support, as needed, through probing questions, prompting or by actively participating as an additional play partner. Independence and active exploration make this strategy particularly effective for young learners practicing self-regulation, social interaction, early language and literacy skills.

Ready-to-Use Resources


Labels for Make-Believe Play

A set of classroom labels that align to common aspects of make-believe play in an early learning environment. Labels include icons and large-print words to support emerging literacy skills.

Grade K, 1 · English Language Arts, Reading, Language, Speaking, Behavior & SEL · 4 pages

Implementation Tips

Encouraging Exploration
Create an environment that encourages active exploration and imaginative play by integrating materials that are relevant, meaningful, and reflective of personal experiences (e.g. baby dolls, phones, money, purses/wallets, costumes).
Practicing Problem-Solving
Present conflict as students partake in imaginative play to support students’ problem-solving skills. For example, join in as a play-partner and pretend to want an item that another student is using.
Encouraging Conversation
Increase engagement by assuming a role in the make-believe exercise that facilitates dialogue. Use questions and prompts to encourage students to encourage oral communication (e.g. “Hi guys. What are you playing?” or “Can I play too?”).
Promoting Critical Thinking
Challenge students to think critically through probing questions and dialogue (e.g. “Lucy, I only have one dollar, how many more do I need to buy the banana?” or “Your baby doll is crying. What do you think he needs?”).
Integrating Content Objectives
Integrate curricular or content objectives in the make-believe play through dialogue and imaginative scenarios to support students acquisition of content mastery (e.g. “That will be five dollars”).
Teaching Empathy
Teach empathy and inclusion by facilitating conversations and exemplifying actions that are inclusive and supportive (e.g. “Jacob, would you like a turn playing with the baby doll?”).
Presenting Scenarios
Support students’ emotional, physical, and language growth during make-believe exercises by presenting scenarios that allow for practice of focus skills (e.g.Teacher says, “Harper, can you help me open the jar?” to a student requiring fine motor support.).


Practicing Conflict Resolution
A teacher notices that many students are struggling to share materials during an art activity. The teacher decides to build the students’ conflict resolution and sharing skills while facilitating a dramatic play center. The students are given a scenario (e.g. “Let’s pretend we have a class pet that everyone wants to play with”) and prompted to play “make believe.” As students engage in the role play, the teacher observes how students interact. When a conflict arises, rather than interrupting, the teacher assumes a role in the scenario to guide students toward a solution (e.g. “Hey, guys, I want to play, too. I wonder how we could take turns?”). The teacher is careful to allow the students to control the narrative while still providing prompts and supports to build independent conflict resolution skills.
Facilitating Free Play
During designated free play time, the teacher observes students in the dramatic play area of the classroom. Students are imitating everyday scenarios such as ordering lattes, rocking “babies” and making dinner. The teacher observes students’ interactions, and assumes a role in the fantasy the students have created to promote critical thinking, problem solving, and language development. The teacher calls out to students, “My baby is crying and won’t go to sleep. What can I do?” The students present ideas for solving the problem including: giving the baby a bottle, singing a song to the baby and putting the baby down for a nap.
Integrating Academic Content
Midway through a math unit on learning to count to ten, the teacher sets up a play environment reflective of a grocery store. Students facilitate play, assuming roles typical in a grocery store environment (e.g. customers, store employees). The teacher assumes the role of the cashier in the make-believe exercise. As the cashier, the teacher integrates instructional scaffolding to support students as they are practicing counting. As Lucy approaches the counter to purchase her groceries, the teacher rings her up and declares that the milk is ten dollars. The teacher encourages Lucy to count to ten while observing her and offering support when needed (e.g. “What comes after eight?”). After several minutes, the teacher encourages other students to assume the role of the cashier, carefully observing the students as they demonstrate competency in counting.

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