Pretend Animals

Posted February 21, 2023
Dogs in the classroom

Pretend Animals

By Ruby Kramer

The more we observe children’s play, the more we see a certain recurring theme: pretending to be animals. I remember this type of play fondly from my own childhood, and I’m delighted to see children playing the same way I did despite all the changes in society and technology. It’s a universally relatable subject; I suppose that children have been pretending to be animals since before language was invented. There are many reasons that this type of play is so universal. It allows children to be physical in the ways they want, practice seeing the world from another’s perspective, and work as a team. Animal play embodies the most important things children are learning in preschool: being part of a community, solving problems together, and practicing physical skills.

Animal play can engage any “level” of player. Children can simply copy another child pretending to be an animal and share joy in parallel play, or they can weave together something more complex. One group may negotiate the dynamics of a pack of wolves and solve a mystery as they prowl around the forest. It’s also possible for a child who wants only to “exist” as an animal to play alongside children who are engaging in a complex narrative, even though she doesn’t understand the narrative. She could be the baby wolf whose only job is to follow her mother and make little wolf cries! This makes animal play a reliable go-to if a group of friends can’t decide what to play. At its foundation it is straightforward and easy to dive into; you can start off just moving and sounding like an animal!

Developmentally, an important milestone children reach in preschool is called Theory of Mind. This is when a child understands that others have different opinions, feelings, and access to knowledge than the child themself. To pretend to be an animal, you need many of the skills that are foundational to Theory of Mind. Stepping into the shoes of another creature allows children to embody the idea that others have different experiences. Not only can they understand the idea, but they can also experiment with it – see how it plays out in conflict with someone else (another actor in their story) and in contrast with their own opinions and experiences.

It’s sometimes shocking to see how some children who seem quite the opposite in everyday life choose to be a small mouse or baby bird – an animal that is vulnerable and wants to spend its time cuddling. Often a very sweet, reserved child will opt to play the vicious tiger. The wide range of the animal kingdom means children can choose a role that makes them feel powerful and energetic, like a lion or tiger, sneaky like a snake, cuddly like a kitten or baby mouse, wise like an owl, etc. If a child has lots of energy to let out, being a hopping bunny or bounding cheetah is a way for her to communicate to her playmates and caregivers the ways in which she wants to move.

In preschool, animal play can follow the seasons and seasonal curriculum topics. When the flock of turkeys was visiting our grounds daily, the children in my afternoon group pretended to be turkeys almost every day. They experimented with how turkeys walked, talked, and even ate. At snack time, I watched them pick at small crumbs of food like turkeys do. We read so many stories about animals that there’s always a book to pick that relates to the current animal play. Or, sometimes, books inspire the play.

The next time you catch your preschooler crawling around the house like a dog or requesting your help carrying their food because their turkey arms are too short, smile! Your child is practicing empathy!

Animals have to pick up food with their mouths!
A bird perches briefly on a rock.