I was the kid who was more interested in playing outside with my imaginary friends than I was in having playdates with non-imaginary friends. So, I understand the kids who’d rather pretend to be a mom, a teacher, a doctor or a dog than do a puzzle or an art project. On this list, you’ll find 22 of the best imaginative toys for kids, from veterinarian kits to sculpting clay, dolls, and even a tent when they (or you) need a place to hide out for a minute.
Pretend play is your child’s way of making sense of the world. Unlike active play (running, jumping, swinging,) imaginative play involves your child existing in a pretend scenario. "This is the classic type of
play in the toddler to preschool years when children might act as their favorite pretend or fantastical characters," Dr. Jack Maypole, pediatrician, told Romper in a previous article. "Their play may be a solitary endeavor, with the young hunter walking the woods alone, or they may play with family members or friends to create plots and characters that can last for minutes or years." Props like costumes, forts, and accessories like a doctor’s kit or cat ears can make it easier for your kids to get really into imaginative play and the world they’ve created. We only include products that have been independently selected by Romper's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article. 1 An Inflatable Castle
Little princesses, knights, lords, ladies, and jesters will love this inflatable castle. All you need to do is plug it in and it inflates in less than a minute, thanks to the built-in blower fan. The castle is really big; the height is 5 foot 7 inches and the width and depth are both six feet, so there’s plenty of room for multiple kids to play inside, plus the roof and the doorway are open air, so you can still hear and see kids. I actually have this castle, and my nephews adore it. I’ve blown it up inside and outside — the durable oxford nylon can endure a little roughness, and the bottom is layered in vinyl so it doesn’t scratch the floors, even if you drag it.
2 A Toy That Doubles As Decor
These large silk-screened wipeable building shapes for imaginative play are as gorgeous as they are fun. Inspired by the geometric shapes of the Bauhaus German architecture movement, these can be made into mazes, forts, tunnels, and more, plus they pack flat when they’re done playing. One reviewer said, “My boys (6 and 4 years old) are loving their Follies. One made a rocket ship and the other one made a giant ant with antennae using the squiggle cutouts. Then they broke those down and made a fort with a restaurant and kitchen. It is so fun to see their creativity on display.”
3 Pattern Shapes
Magnetic sets are always great because it’s hard to lose the pieces, especially when they come in a handy carry-on case like this one, which also travels well in a car or on a plane or train. This fun set has patterned 3D shapes that stick to the board and can be used to make pictures of animals, vehicles, landscapes, or anything they dream-up. It comes with 42 bright wooden magnetic blocks which can be placed on the board to replicate any of the included 50 full-color puzzle ideas. One reviewer said, “Absolutely love the imagination patterns set. All the grandkids play with it, ages 3-10 and love it. Never wears out and will never go out of style. And doesn’t need batteries!”
4 Robots & Coding
For creative kids ages 5 and up, it doesn’t get more fun than this DIY coding kit from KiwiCo. It teaches problem-solving skills and gets kids familiar with the ideas behind programming. Little ones will have fun making a robot rabbit with a customizable track that the bunny can run along. They’ll write programs to solve puzzles and send the hoppy robot down the path they created. It comes with illustrated directions which are helpful especially if your child doesn’t read yet. “One reviewer said, “Developmentally appropriate. Did with vacation kids and they loved it! It was written and developed in a way that created great understanding and concept development.”
5 A Lego Set That Looks Like A Plant
What’s better than a beautiful house plant that doesn’t need water? If your kid (and your bare feet) can handle over 1000 Lego pieces, then this set is sure to be a hit. While the product is technically designed for people ages 18 and up, older children who have a lot of Lego experience could certainly handle this, especially if it’s a project you work on together as a special activity that doesn’t involve a screen. This was one of
Target’s most popular toys in 2021, and there are other sets in the plant line, including a bouquet and a bonsai tree. 6 A Doctor's Kit
Whether your child loves or loathes the doctor's office, this bag of pretend medical tools will get them familiar with what to expect during their next appointment. There are nine fun accessories like a thermometer, a stethoscope, a clipboard and a prescription pad. Plus if your child wants to pretend that they're the doctor or the nurse and you're the patient, you may get a few minutes to lie down on the couch with your eyes closed for the sake of make believe, and there’s nothing better than a game that lets you “rest” your eyes for a few minutes.
7 Puppet Theatre
Melissa & Doug are known for their toys that help cultivate a world of make believe, and this puppet theatre is no exception. You can buy a few puppets to go along with the theatre, or if you and your child are feeling crafty, you could try making the stars of the show by creating sock puppets or using a template to cut a funny puppet family out of paper. Kids will love making up all sorts of silly scenarios with this toy for imaginative play that really allows them to create whatever story or build any world they’d like to see.
8 DIY Puppet
You need puppets for your theatre, and this print out from Etsy makes it super easy to make on your own at home (as long as you have a printer, as this is a digital download that will be delivered to your inbox after purchase). The body moves if you use brass fasteners, and your kid will have fun coloring in the puppet before dreaming up their own show. You can also glue this to cardboard or cardstock so it's a little sturdier. This craft is both fun to make and fun to play with once it's done, allowing for hours of entertainment for under $5.
9 A Sparkly Superhero
I love that this superhero costume is pink and glittery, not your typical black or red. It comes with the tulle cape embroidered with sparkly decals, plus silver leatherette wrist cuffs and a matching eye mask with elastic hook and loop closures to fit comfortably over their heads. The cape also comes with a drawstring bag so you can store it safely when it’s not in use (well, that’s the goal at least). They'll be saving the world in no time. If superheroes aren’t their thing, Meri Meri is a great place to get all sorts of unusual costumes from birds, to lions, sharks, or sparkly mermaids.
10 For The Little Chefs
This play kitchen won't break the bank but it still has fun bells and whistles like pot hooks and light-up burners (though the four double A batteries that make this possible are not included).They can make soups, bake cookies, and wash-up, all in a safe, not-too-messy way. Just be ready to "taste" all their creations. Best of all, picking up this kitchen will give you a reason to schlep to Ikea and pick up some other essentials. The Swedish store also has great accessories for the play kitchen including little bowls and plates, and a cute
play pizza set. 11 Groceries For The Kitchen
You can't have a play kitchen without play food. Your child can pretend they're shopping at the grocery store (and I guarantee they'll love the wooden scanner). The set includes pantry staples including a can of tuna, butter, baguette, cookies, sweet corn, ketchup, olive oil, spaghetti, chocolate, and cereal, plus a basket and scanner stickers. The toys are made of sustainable rubberwood and are suitable for ages 2 and up. After your little one does their shopping, they can whip up a meal for the whole family in their cute little kitchen. Wouldn't it be nice if this game was real?
12 A Firehouse
If your child can't go more than a few hours without running through your home screeching siren noises at the top of their lungs, then they'll love this fire station tent. Firefighters need a place to rest, and this one has all sorts of fun details like a hydrant, hose, alarm, and pretend garage door. It's made of 100% cotton canvas with sturdy metal support poles (so it pops up kind of like a camping tent). If you’re really going all out, you could also give your child a ride-on fire truck, and set the tent up outside in the yard.
13 Play Diaper Bag
Every doll lover needs a diaper bag so they can take their baby on a make-believe outing. This bag comes stocked up with essentials every (real and pretend) parent or caregiver would need, like wipes, two diapers, a changing pad, and a bib. If you prefer to pack the bag yourself (maybe with real diapers, which is so exciting for kids, and hand-me-down bottles or swaddles) for $32.99 you can buy just the sweet bag.
Just remember if something of yours goes missing (say your phone or wallet) don’t forget to check your kid’s diaper bag, as they’re notorious for “borrowing” grown-up items when they play.
14 A Post Office Pretend Play Set
For the kid who eagerly waits for the mail carrier or UPS person each day (a sure sign of a pandemic child), this fun post office pretend play set will allow them to emulate their mail carrying heroes. Kids will have a blast coloring in the large poster featuring the post office, that they can then hang on the wall and have as a backdrop to their game. The set also comes with cardstock bins to sort the mail and other paper accessories. Finally, you’ll have a place for all that annoying junk mail to go to good use.
15 Blast Off
They can blast off into another realm (well, in their imaginations at least) with this rocket ship building toy. It comes with 31 universal peg-and-hole pieces so they all fit together in different creative ways that won’t get boring. The wooden pieces are made from sustainably grown rubberwood and they’re finished with non-toxic, child-safe wood stains (the blocks are recommended for ages 3 and up).
This is a fun toy for parents and kids to play with together, but it’s also ideal for solo play, especially because it doesn’t make noise and isn’t frustrating to put together. You could even get them a little NASA suit to wear while they build.
16 A Major Dollhouse
This dollhouse is so cool I kind of want it for myself. It has three floors, a gliding elevator, plus all the furniture is included and has lights and sounds (the toilet flushes, for example, and the piano plays music). This one is made of wood and fits 12 inch dolls best, plus it will get them imagining what it would be like to be all sorts of different people all under the same roof. Just note that you will need to put this one together yourself (though most reviewers said it’s easy to build). It comes with 14 accessories including a few pieces of furniture, a cake stand, a hanging plant, and more, but you can also buy more accessories.
17 For The Budding Scientist
This set comes with a washable lab coat, googles, test tubes, a name badge, and all the things a kid needs to feel like a real scientist. The kit contains a manual, but none of the supplies you'll need for actual experiments (though if you have some old cabbage and food coloring at home, you're already on your way to discovery).
If your kid just likes to pretend they work in a lab and doesn’t have a burning desire to actually do an experiment, you could fill the beakers up with colored water (or put some glitter in water) for a project that will keep them busy for a while.
18 All The Makings For A Fort
Now your kids can build a fort that doesn't require ripping all the pillows off the couch and dragging them across the floor. The cardboard pieces look like wood (but they’re light and won’t hurt if dropped on someone’s toe) and there are even extras so they can build a storage container for the pieces when they're not in use. This will help hone problem-solving and spatial awareness skills, and when it's assembled, the fort sets the stage for so many imaginative games and scenarios. Plus, it offers a quiet, private spot for older kids to read or hangout in peace.
19 A Work Bench
The child who always wants to "help" their mom and dad with home projects will love having their very own workbench. They can imagine what they'd like to build, and how'd they do it. This one’s made from solid pine wood and has a measuring tape built-in. It also comes with all the tools they’ll need to get the job done including a saw, hammer, wrench, screwdriver, two nuts, two bolts, gears, and nails.
Now when parents are working on home or DIY projects, kids can work alongside without actually needing to hold tools or assist. You can also give them some scrap wood to play around with.
20 S'mores Set
This sweet set has everything they'll need for a fun afternoon of pretend s'mores. The marshmallows are double-sided, so as they rotate on the stick to reveal the bottom, the marshmallows look actually charred and toasted. For hours of fun (or a great playdate game) set up some sleeping bags or a small tent and have them pretend they're on a camping trip. They can tell spooky stories as they use the included toy saw to pretend to chop down wood for their roaring fire. Just be prepared; these fake s’mores are so realistic they’ll probably soon be asking for the real thing.
21 A Realistic Doll
Every child who likes to pretend they're a parent, a big brother or sister, or a babysitter needs a good doll. This one has a cloth body, vinyl limbs that can easily be wiped clean, and stylable hair. It's a popular 18-inch size, too, so you should have no problem finding more outfits for her.
This doll doesn’t have a name because the company wants kids to use their imaginations to think up the perfect name for her, but she does come with a sweet little bio that says she has a cat named Sparkles, loves math, going to the beach, and the color lavender, and she collects seashells and plays soccer.
22 Wonder & Wise Vet Kit
All animal lovers or aspiring veterinarians will love this set that comes with a plush puppy and tools any vet needs to get the job done. Above and beyond your average vet kit, this set opens up to reveal an examination table, in a clinic, plus spaces for the animals to rest (it’s a good fit for smaller stuffed animals, like Beanie Babies).
Kids will love to take on a caretaker role and practice empathy for their furry friend, plus it may make their own fears of the doctor a little less pronounced. This is easy to wipe down with a damp cloth if it gets messy.
23 A Grill For Dolls
Their dolls can get in on the beachside summer fun with this grill set that comes with a portable, fold-up grill, plus food that actually changes color and gets charred grill marks. Let the beach picnic commence, even if the beach is your living room and the sand is a paper bag (please don’t let it be real sand). American Girl has tons of fun accessories for 18-inch dolls, and you can find something that reflects whatever your kid is into. There are pets, musical instruments, dance shoes, and other sports gear, all in the super cute doll-size.
24 A Play Tent
Get your little one cultivating a green thumb early with this imaginative toy. The fun set requires a lot of patience and motor skills when it comes to building the flowers from the ground up. They’ll put together all parts of the brightly colored blooms including the base, leaves, pistils, stamens, and petals. There’s an included watering can too, and the flowers can get wet if you want to turn this into an outdoor activity. One reviewer said, “Well made toy that challenges their imagination and motor skills. My 4 (girl) and 6 years old (boy) were entertained for hours playing with this. I also love that they can play inside and outside with it! Fantastic buy, great company as well.”
25 Sculpting Clay
This set comes with 18 cans of bright, non-sticky, nontoxic clay so they can bring the characters in their heads to life. The clay will dry and harden when left out for 24 hours (no firing in the oven necessary), then they can make up worlds using their creations. Working with clay helps kids build both fine and gross motor skills, and it helps with problem-solving and abstract thinking (i.e. how to translate an idea in their head into something tangible and 3D). Plus, it’s really fun and there’s something satisfying about making a toy you get the play with later.
26 A Set Of LEGO Robots
Legos are always a hit when you’re unsure what to give as a gift. These Gear Bots are cool too because they’re a little different from your typical Lego set in that it’s a book and a kit. Using STEAM principles, kids will learn how to create eight physics-driven kinetic robots that require learning about motion and movement using axles, cams, cranks, and other foundations of engineering. One reviewer said, “Thank you MindWare for featuring this Lego goodie! I couldn't find it anywhere else and such a reasonable price. It is the perfect b-day gift for a newly minted 8-year old Lego-loving Grandson. Ordering and delivery were perfect.”
27 A Costume Box
From vet to astronaut, scientist to camper, there are so many things your kid can pretend to be, especially when they have toys and accessories to bring their world alive. This set includes everything they’ll need to dress as an aviator, an outback explorer and an archaeologist. It’s understandably a little pricey but the costumes are high quality and include a ton of fun play accessories like a camera, flight goggles, a compass, a map, or binoculars, plus bags and the outfits themselves (plus a cute adventure-themed storage trunk). The costumes are designed to fit kids ages 3-5.