Pretend play can help kids conquer fears, transcend (perceived limitations) and overcome challenges.

It can certainly help parents too.

Your kids’ own imagination is your secret weapon.  I use games to help my son clean-up, have table manners and prepare for events that otherwise might be stressful.

A child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action. 
–  Lev Vygotsky, Developmental Psychologist

Pretend play surrounding the “going to the doctor” is such a healthy way to build up bravery and prepare for the yearly check-up.  But it also serves as a means to connect with your child and help them articulate and manage their fears.

I love the game Animal Doctor, that I developed in my Child’s Play NY classrooms, to inspire purposeful dramatic play.

Watch this video of how to Play Animal Doctor

How to Play

Who are the patients?

Even though I call this “Animal Doctor”, don’t let that stop you from playing this with other characters.  Superheroes, unicorns or any other real or imaginary creature that sparks your kids pretend playing all make great patients.

Establish the space and the ritual

Setting up the space as if it really were a doctor’s office is important.  I even like to have a waiting room where the patient is announced.  Setting up a blanket, to be the bed, use a chair to sit in as the doctor.  As the patient to knock on a door or ring a pretend bell to establish the start of their turn. These kinds of limits are excellent to provide form for the game and help with turn taking.

Tools You Don’t Need

There are dozens of pretend play doctor’s kits on the market.  I like to start with nothing though, since I may be called upon to perform a delicate surgery using a toothpick, or go fishing inside a whale’s mouth.  As soon as I start using doctor props it limits the imaginative possibilities. That said, if you are hoping to get your child aware of the tools that the doctor will be using on a visit, by all means incorporate a stethoscope and ear/eye flashlight into your pretend play.

Assign Roles to the Other Kids

I love to use the other children who are waiting to play (whether they are siblings or classmates) as if they were physician assistants.  I send them off to a side of the room to get bug-size-bandages, or that special viper-tooth-replacement.  They get really engaged as helpers and even offer fantastic suggestions for how to heal the patient.

Switch Up the Usual Roles for Siblings

Even though I suggest you establish the game with yourself (the adult) as the doctor, feel free to change up the power dynamic.  Your youngest child can play the doctor and that invites in a whole new, and likely welcome, power-dynamic within your family. Pretend play can be very cathartic and will likely open up new avenues of communication and relationships when kids take on roles they are not used to assuming.

Flex your Imagination with Pretend Play

I always encourage my students to use this game to get creative and think outside the box.  I never wanted to hear about a run-of-the-mill injury.  Even though the animal characters usually inspire a great deal of imaginative thinking, this is still an opportunity to push the boundary and become vivid storytellers.  It is your job, as the doctor, to ask them “How did this happen?”. Continue to encourage their sense of drama and conflict by asking leading questions and helping them arrive at a compelling narrative for themselves.

End Victoriously

Always make sure that you end victoriously. The ostrich can now run, pufferfish can blow, and the ladybug has all her spots back. Kids love demonstrating their recovered abilities and the nurse assistants feel triumphant as healers as well.
playing doctor, pretend play and cognitive development

Animal Doctor Origin Story

It all started when I was a young teaching artist running the after-school program at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights.  Since a majority of my games were extremely physical (like freeze tag, obstacle courses and our version of red-light-green-light), kids were getting bumped and bonked quite a bit.

While none of the collisions required even an ice-pack or a trip to the nurse’s office, they did seem to merit slowing down and reflecting. Oftentimes, it was a cue that the pretend play had gotten too wild and we needed to bring it down a notch. To this end, we would stay in character and just take a trip to the “doctor”.

Because the kids were often in animal characters, the doctor (that would be me) was a vet. One child would present her animal and injury, and dramatically explain how it happened. I made sure that there was vivid imagination at work.  Since they were in animal characters, it automatically stretched them to think beyond just the regular scraped knee or broken arm. Animal characters took it to a really exciting dramatic play-place.

Suddenly they had wings, talons, scales or fur. It allowed them to transcend the limits of their kid-body and in doing so activated their imaginations.

While the “patient” while the other children would be my “nurse assistants” helping me to think of the perfect remedy for healing.

This game was such a success. Kids would ask to play this even without before a bump or a scrape happened.  To this end, I started to work it into my curriculum.

A Game that Helps Make Sense of the Real World


Like Elevator, and Taxi, Animal Doctor similarly uses the constraints of the “real world” and helps children develop.

Lev Vygotsky was a pioneer in the field of Developmental psychology.  His research on play and cognitive development shapes much of our modern understanding of early childhood. Adult participation, or scaffolding, is crucial to a child’s development through play.  Parents and teachers are supremely important players.  We can elevate pretend play by setting up expectations, asking directed questions, and modelling real-life scenarios.

This adult interaction “helps bridge the difference between a child’s current level of problem-solving and his potential for more complex problem solving.” (Child Development Media).

I’m excited to continue digging into this pretend play in my own living room.  Here’s hoping that my son’s well-visit to the pediatrician will be easier this year!

Thanks for watching and playing!



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