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10 the best toys for pretend play

Let your child's imagination run wild with these kid-tested and rated play washing machines, kitchens, shops and ice cream counters

Boys and girls of all ages love to indulge in a bit of make-believe – and a good pretend-play toy will give them the keys to a activity-packed world of imaginative play. You could plump for the classic wooden mini kitchen or doll's house – always winners – or go for something a bit more modern with interactive sounds and lights.

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If your child likes pretend playing outside and likes getting mucky, take a look at our list of the best mud kitchens.

We've been taking a good, hard look at loads of pretend-play toys, in a range of prices, and– with the help of our child testers – have whittled them down to a very select few.

Here's our pick of the best toys for pretend play, as tested by children and rated by parents...

1. Playhouse Ice Cream Van, £99.99

– Great for 'serving customers' play

Playhouse Ice Cream Van

Age suitability: 5+ | Best for age: 5+ | Batteries: None
Awards: Gold, MadeForMums Toy Awards 2021

What it is: A 100cm x 73cmx 97cm wooden ice cream van with serving hatch, internal slide-top chest freezer and blackboard menu. There are stencils and patterns marked out on the packaging for you to make cardboard cones, ice cream and accessories.

Why we love it: Imaginative play and ice cream are a match made in heaven! This sturdy play van may take a while to assemble – our testers say just over an hour – but, once it’s built, the kids can let their imaginations go wild coming up with fun ice cream concoctions to serve through the hatch. Our child tester Joseph, 4, said, "I like everything – but the freezer is the best as I can put all my ice creams in there to stop melting!" The DIY accessories are a nice idea but probably won't last that long. We appreciated the little painted details, like the soft-serve machine painted inside the van, though.

Available at: Uber Kids and Argos

2. LeapFrog Count-along Basket & Scanner, £33.99

– Great for matching and counting

LeapFrog Count Along Basket & Scanner

Age suitability: 2+ | Best for age: 2+ | Batteries: 2 x AAA (included)
Awards: Gold, MadeForMums Toy Awards 2021

What it is: A 24cm-high shopping basket that comes with 8 pieces of play food and an interactive 'scanner' that recognises each food item as you 'scan' it. It has 3 game modes based on colours, shapes, counting and food groups. The handle on the basket can also be pulled out to turn it into a rollalong trolley basket. Comes with instructions and 3 scannable double-sided shopping lists.

Why we love it: It's solidly made, brightly coloured, with well thought out games (and a friendly, encouraging voice to guide you through them) – but the scanner is the absolute star. The fact that it recognises each food captivated all our child testers. Donna, mum of Holly, 2, said the toy hadn’t left her daughter’s side since she got it. "Holly enjoys playing shop," she said, "so this toy with the scanning device took it to the next level. She keeps wanting to show it to anyone that comes round. She is playing with it independently and saying the names of the different food items, so already she is learning from it. I can see great potential for this toy in imaginative play for many years to come."

Available at: Argos, Smyths Toys and Studio

3. Great Little Trading Company Growing Garden Wooden Toy, £70

– Great for nature lovers

Great Little Trading Company Growing Garden Toy

Age suitability: 3+ | Best for age: 4+ | Batteries: None
Awards: Silver, MadeforMums Toy Awards 2021

What it is: A 30cm x 44cm wooden gardening set with flowers, fruit and vegetables to plant, water, dig and harvest. Includes 1 tulip, 1 sunflower, 2 lettuces, 2 strawberries, 2 carrots, 3 tomatoes, 3 peppers, 2 potatoes, 5 seed markers, 1 watering can, 1 trowel, 1 crate, and 1 packet of seeds.

Why we love it: It's beautiful to look at, easy to carry and we really like the Velcro on the veg, so you can stick them onto their stalks – and then pick them off. We like the seed markers too – good for developing early reading skills. Our child tester Jaime, 3, said: "I like the look of it. I REALLY like the fork!" His mum Aimee added, "I’m very impressed but the design and detail of this: it is possibly one of the highest-quality toys we own."

Available at: Great Little Trading Company

4. Melissa & Doug Scoop & Serve Ice Cream Counter, £42.99

– Great for hand eye coordination

Melissa & Doug Scoop & Serve Ice Cream Counter

Age suitability: 3+ | Best for age: 3+ | Batteries: None
Awards: Silver, MadeForMums Toy Awards 2021

What it is: A 22cm x 34cm x 20cm wooden ice cream counter playset that comes with 8 scoops of ice cream, 6 toppings and 2 cones. Also included are tongs, an ice cream scoop, spoon, paper cup, play money and a menu card.

Why we love it: We love the traditional feel and beautiful quality of this wooden toy, and the scoop is wonderful – it picks up the ice creams beautifully and lets you stack 'flavour' upon 'flavour' in the little cones. Out child tester Herbie, 5, really got into role playing, passing around the menu, taking orders from Mum and Dad and making everyone their favourite ice cream combo: "I always get the chocolate cone, chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce because I love chocolate!" His mum Rachel would have liked a little cash drawer to keep the play money in but was really impressed by the toy's universal appeal, adding, "Herbie's cousins, ranging from 3 to 11, came to visit and all of them played with this toy for nearly an hour together – wow!"

Available at: Smyths Toys and Amazon

5. Casdon Electronic Washer, £30

– Great for sound effects

Casdon washing machine

Age suitability: 3+ | Best for age: 3+ | Batteries: 3 x C (not included)
Awards: Bronze, MadeForMums Toy Awards 2021

What it is: A 30cm-high toy washing machine with 2-speed spinning drum, pull out detergent drawer and 4 buttons to press. The on button lights up and it makes noises like a real washing machine. Comes in either grey or pink and includes a small laundry basket and pretend washing powder box.

Why we love it: It's quite a dinky little washing machine but the sound effects and spinning drum are great and lots of fun. Our child tester Sofia, 3, was excited to use it and she enjoyed watching it go through the different stages of the wash cycle, pressing the different buttons. "I like the sounds and the basket for the washing," she said. Do note that the batteries it uses are not your usual AA or AAAs, so may not be quite so easy to find.

Available at: Amazon, Selfridges and Argos

6. TP Muddy Madness Wooden Mud Kitchen, £149.99

– Great for muddy fun

bestpretendplaytpkitchenrs

Age suitability: 3+ | Best for age: 3+ | Batteries: None

What it is: A deluxe 108cm x 43cm x 369cm mud kitchen, made from FSC-certified timber. Includes an oven with opening door, a removable splash tub with slide-over wood cover and a refillable water butt and tap. Comes with a set of stainless steel pots and pans and a mixing whisk. Requires about 1 hour of assembly.

Why we love it: It’s sturdy, stylish, and, basically, pretend-play heaven. We particularly like the 'hobs rings' you stencil on and the blackboard above the sink. Our child testers loved the water butt a lot. Oh, and how easily it all hoses down after the mud is slung!

Available at: TP Toys and John Lewis

7. Tender Leaf Table Top Tool Bench, £76

– Great for wannabe construction geniuses

Tender Leaf Table Top Tool Bench

Age suitability: 3+ | Best for age: 3+ | Batteries: None

What it is: A 42cm x 25cm x 49cm 28-piece wooden tool bench. Comes with 5 tools, a vice, a storage shelf and a chalkboard as well as nuts, bolts and pieces of drilled wood.

Why we love it: This reclaimed rubberwood table-top-sized work bench looks amazing and the tools are chunky and well-made. We particularly like how there's a special hanging place for the saw, and holes you can stow the spanner and screwdriver in. Our testers had fun drawing on the blackboard, 'crushing' things in the vice and making robot faces (like in the picture) with the nuts and bolts.

Available at: Wooden Toy Shop and Bright New Things

8. LeapFrog Scoop & Learn Ice Cream Cart, £52.99

– Great for musical pretend play

best-pretend-play-toys_211433

Age suitability: 2+ | Best for age: 2+ | Batteries: 3 x AA

What it is: A push-along cart with 8 scoops of ice cream, 3 toppings, 3 syrups, 2 storage drawers, a till, a syrup pump and 6 double-sided order/activity cards of varying difficulties. The 'magic' scooper for serving up orders recognises colours and flavours, and the cart plays music if you push it around. Needs some (easy) assembly.

Why we love it: Where do we start?! From the satisfying click of the scooper to the endless learning opportunities of serving ice-cream orders to customers, this toy inspires SO much fun. Our testers adored dinging the bell when an order was ready and ringing up the till, while their parents really liked the entertaining way it teaches colours, numbers, sequencing, memory and matching skills.

Available at: Amazon and Argos

9. Le Toy Van Honeybee Market, £69.95

– Great for playing shop

Le Toy Van Honeybee Market

Age suitability: 3+ | Best for age: 3+ | Batteries: None

What it is: A 40cm x 38cm x 64cm wooden market stall with a striped cloth canopy, a bell and 2 deep shelves. Comes with a wooden crate containing apples and pears and a canvas shopping bag. Additional crates and matching accessories available separately. Requires some self-assembly.

Why we love it: It's beautifully made and super-sturdy. We really like that the fruit are part-fabric (lovely to touch) but we do wish there were more of them. Our child testers absolutely loved the little bell on the side. Does take a while to assemble.

Available at: Le Toy Van and Wonderland Models

10. Melissa & Doug Slice and Stack Sandwich Counter, £42.99

– Great for creative 'customer service'

melissa and doug stack and slice sandwich counter

Age suitability: 3+ | Best for age: 3+ | Batteries: None

What it is: A 34cm x 22cm 52-piece wooden sandwich counter with a pretend meat and cheese slicer, wooden food slices, felt sandwich roll and toppings. Includes cup with a drink insert, menu, bottle of dressing, tongs and play money.

Why we love it: It totally caught our child testers' imagination – they were taking orders and creating fillings almost before we'd got it out of the box. We love how many pieces there are in this set and how well thought out everything is. Masses of fun.

Available at: Very, Amazon and Uber Kids

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About the author

Helen is Deputy Editor of MadeForMums, the author of Parenting for Dummies (Wiley, £17.99) and the Head Tester for our MadeForMums Toy Awards. She has written about parenting for Mumsnet, Pregnancy & Birth, Prima Baby, Boots Parenting Club and She Magazine and she's also been Consumer Editor of Mother & Baby. She has 3 boys and a heavy-duty washing machine.

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