How to Teach Your Toddler the Difference Between Real & Imaginary

The line between real and imaginary may seem obvious to older children and adults, but toddlers usually do not see or understand this distinction -- and it's developmentally normal for this age group to have difficulty with the concept. Explore these notions in different ways to help your tot learn the difference between real and fictitious situations or characters.

Allow your toddler time for pretend play. Imagining and pretending situations and scenarios is an important milestone in development. Children reach this point by observing behaviors and actions long enough to mimic them in some rudimentary form. Crawling around on the floor and roaring like a lion after a trip to the zoo can be a natural activity for a young child.

Inject some reality if your child seems to need it 1. Sometimes pretend or imaginary play might reach a point where it’s frightening to your child – monsters in the closet, for example. Go ahead and tell your child that there’s no such thing as monsters and that the only items in his closet are shoes and clothes and toys.

Talk about pretend characters and images your child sees in storybooks or on television. Explain that the stories read about in books or the fictional characters your child sees on screens are pretend – not true. Explain that some people make up these stories, using their own imaginations, to share ideas and to entertain others.

Ask your child to tell you whether specific examples of real and imaginary characters or situations are real or pretend. For example, you might ask, “Is Cinderella real or imaginary?” or “Are animals that talk real or imaginary?” Encourage the correct answers from your child. If he struggles to discern the difference, use this opportunity to teach more about the difference between real and imaginary using your chosen examples.

Turn the pages of a fiction picture book with your toddler and ask him if characters in the book are real or imaginary. As he gives answers, give feedback about whether he’s correct or incorrect. For example, if the book has fictional animal characters having a tea party, you could explain to your child that animals don’t talk and they don’t drink tea – making the story and the characters imaginary.


Expect the blurred line between real and imaginary to become more distinct as your child reaches about age 4 or 5. Although 4- or 5-year-olds understand the difference between reality and pretend, they often choose to submerge themselves fully in pretend play because it’s much more engaging and entertaining.