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Pretend and Imitation

Pretend and Imitation
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Hello! This week on Ask a Teacher, we answer a question from Shinji in Japan.


I am unsure about how to use “imitate” and “pretend.”

For example, I see such sentences as, “Does your child like pretend play?” referring to acting like a superhero, for instance. But is it wrong to say, “Does your child like imitation play?”

Shinji, Japan.


Dear Shinji,

We have all watched children as they use their imagination during play. For example, a child may pick up a stick and use it as a sword, pretending to be a hero.

The simple answer to your question is no, it is not wrong to use “imitation” as an adjective with the noun “play.” But there is a difference in meaning. Let us look at the two words.


When someone pretends, they are acting as if something were true. An example is the child who takes an empty shoe box and puts a doll into it. The child is pretending as they push it around the floor, saying,

This is her car.


When children imitate, they are acting as if they were another person, such as an adult in their life. The child who holds a doll and sings a gentle song to it is imitating a loving parent. The child puts the doll down and covers it, saying,

My baby is going to sleep now. Please be quiet.

The child is both imitating a parent and pretending that the doll is a living thing.


Do you have a child who plays in this way? You may be interested to know that experts say it is very important for children to learn by imitating what they see around them and pretending with toys and other objects. Both help them use their imagination.

Another word for this kind of play is “make-believe.” One way to help a child develop their imagination is to provide dress-up clothes and toys that look like tools and household objects. Experts also suggest it is good to play along with whatever story the child imagines and talk about what is happening to help develop their language skills.

Shinji, I hope you have fun taking part in pretend play with the children in your life. You can even see adults playing at being someone else or being in another time at historical fairs and museums.

What question do you have about American English? Send us an email at

And that’s Ask a Teacher.

I’m Jill Robbins.

Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

pretendv. to act as if something is true when it is not true

swordn. a weapon with a long metal blade that has a sharp point and edge

museum –n. a building in which interesting and valuable things (such as paintings and sculptures or scientific or historical objects) are collected and shown to the public

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