Dress up & Pretend Play

The best dress up and pretend play toys for 1 – 3 year olds

If there is one box of toys that gets pulled out most frequently, it is defitley the dress up box. Dress up is the go to “ice-breaker” for playdates and crabby afternoons in our home. The good news is that pretend play or dramatic play (which includes fancy dress) is hugely important for young children’s overall development.

Below you will find some of my favorite picks for dress up and pretend play items for 1- 3 year olds. I have divided it according to age with the intention of giving you a place to start. In other words: what is listed for 1 year olds is like the core starting place for building your dress up collection. You can of course mix and match between the age groups and also always follow your child’s lead in terms of their unique interests.

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Pretend Play toys for 1 year olds

Dress up and pretend play helps our children develop their symbolic thinking. A block is a block but could also symbolize a phone or a book or a car. Your will already see this emerging in your child before their first birthday so it is definitely a great way to play with 1 year olds.

children playing imaginary baking

My favorite pretend play accessories for 1 year olds:

  1. Play silks
  2. Hats
  3. Capes
  4. Puppets
  5. Doctors kit
  6. Ice cream set
  7. Wooden fruit

Imaginary play for 2 year olds

Around age 2 you will notice that imaginary play really explodes in young children. They are not only able to use objects symbolically but they also use their dolls (see separate doll and figurine recommendations) to interact as part of the play. From tea parties, to engineering project to pirates sailing on the high seas your child is using pretend play in many different ways.

7 great pretend play toys for 2 year olds

  1. Tea set
  2. Play kitchen
  3. Tools and building set
  4. Explorer set
  5. Fireman set
  6. Princess set
  7. Play house set
Boy dressed as superhero

3 Year old pretend play

It is likely that by the time your child reaches age 3, you already have a good collection of play food, some form of a kitchen or farm stall, scarves and several dress up accessories. The following list are things that we added to our imaginary play setup when my eldest was aged 3 and they have each served us very well.

6 imaginary play accessories for 3 year olds

  1. Walkie Talkie
  2. Face paint
  3. Kids camera
  4. Ballerina leotard
  5. Mailbox set
  6. Cash register

Storage options for dress up clothes

Firstly, I want to be really clear that you do not need every type of pretend play toy and dress up outfit in your home. Many minimalist families manage just fine with a handful of toys and accessories in this area. Less is more when it comes to toys.

For us, we keep a dress up box and the rule is that it can stay only as one box (like this). This means that naturally if new things come in, some of the old stuff must go out.

It could also be nice to hang all of the fancy dress clothes on one rack like this.

Montessori and dress up girl pretend play with big hat

Montessori and dress up

Traditional Montessori steers children firmly towards reality and therefore you would not find most of the listed toys in a traditional montessori learning environment. Personally as a an Occupational Therapist and understanding the huge value of symbolic play in the little years, I feel this is not always to the benefit of the children.

Many families who practice montessori within the home find a happy middle ground by allowing fancy dress items that are realistic and in being very clear on what is fantasy and what is reality.

This may look like a dress up box containing silk scarves, big floppy hats and brightly colored socks in a montessori home instead of a rack of mermaid and princess costumes in a non-montessori home.

Montessori and pretend play

Similarly traditional Montessori steers children towards tools that are real and not pretend. Like a real knife instead of a pretend knife, a real kitchen to help in instead of a pretend kitchen to play in.

There is a lot of benefit that Montessori families receive from doing this.

  • Their children participate in Practical Life activities (like cooking)
  • They naturally explore risky play in their everyday life
  • Children feel a large sense of independence and power when they are able to do things like an adult (like sweeping the floor)

On the other hand, it can mean that the first few years of life (specifically for 1 and 2 year olds), children aren’t given the chance to play symbolically as much. An example of this would be wood work tools, most families wouldn’t leave a set of screws and screwdrivers out for a 1 year old to take as they please because it is a choking risk among other things. However, 1 year olds could get hours of good pretend play out of a a set of wooden tools.

In our home, we don’t draw any hard and fast rules on this but do try to allow as much real Practical Life and risky play as possible while creating many age appropriate opportunities for pretend play.

Looking for more ideas? Head back to the ultimate gift guide for 1- 3 year olds.