How to Entertain Kids By Going for a Drive in the ‘Pretend Car’

What I love about this game for me is that it gives me insight into how my kid sees the world. What does she remember, what upsets her, what inspires fear?

by Paul Underwood
pretend car

Pretend Car is a freeform, improvisation-based game in which a child (ideally yours) “drives” a companion (probably you) to a variety of imaginary destinations, drawn from real-life adventures and experiences. The game usually takes more time than an adult (realistically, you) would prefer, but less time than your child would prefer. But isn’t that better than the alternative, one of the lackluster activities for kids that bores them quickly?

The name both is and isn’t a misnomer. Yes, there is a pretend car (a chair) at the center of the game. But the pretend car drives to lots of places: Pretend School, Pretend Store, Pretend Doctor’s Office, Pretend Park, even Pretend Pool (summer months only). Your child will likely recreate recent experiences through playing pretend. For example, a recent doctor’s office visit may inspire a trip to Pretend Doctor’s Office, where your child will hold your hand while you receive Pretend Shots. Oh, did I forget to mention? In this game, your child will be playing the role of parent, and you will be playing the role of child.

Prep Time: 0 minutes / A child’s lifetime of experiences

Hours of Entertainment: For child, many. For you, it depends.

Energy Expended by Child: Imaginatively, a lot. Physically, not a lot.

What You’ll Need:

  • A chair, preferably a leather chair with an ottoman so you can sit in the more comfortable “back seat. You will still have to cross your legs because it’s a small car, but the easy chair is best.
  • A willingness to suffer the indignities that come with being the pretend passenger in a toddler’s pretend car, and a metaphorical passenger in a toddler’s pretend world.
  • A little bit of space.

How To Play:

The great part about this game, for you and for your child, is that you, the adult, need do almost nothing to guide it. Once the game begins, you are his or her passenger, and your only rule is to follow the rules and listen just like you wished your child would do. You will drive to the Pretend Store and pretend to choose groceries from the store. You will drive to the Pretend School, and your child will pretend to drop you off—and when she does, model the ideal dropoff, with a loving and supportive hug, followed by an eager dive into the pretend world of her school. (If you know your child’s favorite things about school, and I hope that you do, try “playing” those games with the pretend kids and teachers. Which reminds me: Drop names. It shows your child that you listen to him when he tells you about his day.) In a sense, this game allows your child to do what many authors do: Create a perfect world where he or she gets to choose the characters, the plot, the outcome. Model good behavior, but with the occasional lapse so she can model correcting you.

Your role in all this is to buy in as completely as possible. While in the Pretend Car, ask what music you can listen to, if you can roll the windows up and down, if she can slow down (or, better yet, speed up). Be specific. Be engaged. Be a little ornery. After all, when else do you get to quite literally act like a kid again.

What I love about this game for me is that it gives me insight into how my kid sees the world. What does she remember, what does she love, what upsets her, what inspires fear? All of it comes up in Pretend Car. This is the kind of knowledge you can’t get from a regular conversation.

The game also lets her learn from experience something that’s difficult to teach any other way: empathy. If she gets to “discipline” me for, say, not paying attention to her during Pretend Car, she seems more understanding when her mother or I need to remind her to listen later on that day.

I also just love watching her come up with crazy scenarios and act them out. Her favorite deus ex machina: a lion that appears out of nowhere and proceeds to chase us until we get back to the car. The secret to the game, as you’ve probably figured out by now, is that the key to Pretend Car isn’t the car, it’s the pretend. Every child — hell, every person, period — needs an imaginative safe space to work out this confusing world. It’s nice to visit a kid’s safe space.