Imaginative Play for Children

Dr. Katie Godfrey, LMFT

     Imaginative play is so fun and helpful for children in many different ways. However, parents are oftentimes at a loss as to how to encourage this, especially with screen time being so enticing to children. Here are some benefits to imaginative play as well as some suggestions for how to easily incorporate it into your family life!

Benefits of Imaginative Play

     Why is imaginative play so important?  One primary reason is that imaginative play helps the brain to develop in healthy ways. Specifically, children learn ways of thinking that positively impact social functioning, identity development, and self-confidence. If a child can imagine something, the brain lights up differently than if a child passively consumes something (e.g. TV,  etc.). Imaginative tasks building stronger connections to different parts of the brain that can improve how the brain solves problems, interprets situations, and creates new ideas. Let’s consider several of the many benefits of imaginative play:

Critical Thinking: Imaginative play helps develop a child’s brain so that it is able to offer a stronger foundation for critical thinking. This critical thinking skill will continue to develop as child becomes a teenager and ultimately an adult. Children develop a sense of curiosity through play, which can lead to them thinking more deeply and comprehensively about concepts or ideas. Obviously this depends on the child’s development, but encouraging imagination can be important at nearly any age.

Personal Identity: Imaginative play enables a child to explore different identities and learn more about themselves. When a child gets to play out a fantasy of being another person, another gender, an animal, or any other imaginative role they are having the opportunity to explore many possibilities of who they are or could be. This also helps children hone in on their interests and what they like to do.

Empathy: Imaginative play helps a child to develop empathy. We know that empathy is quite important and that it is not a quality human beings are naturally born with; it has to be taught.  By pretending to be someone else, a child is able to see the world through another set of eyes, and is thus developing this essential socio-emotional skill. They also get to play out scenarios or situations between multiple play characters which can help them understand how situations or events impact relationships and emotions.  

Conflict Management: Imaginative play helps children learn conflict management skills. Children will not always agree when playing. Imaginative play gives them an opportunity to rupture and repair their relationships, learn to compromise, know that is is okay to disagree, and learn how to advocate for themselves. 

A Sense of Control: Imaginative play gives children a sense of control in their lives.  Overall, children experience very little power and control in their own lives.  They are typically told when and what to eat, when to sleep, when to wake up, and where they are going.  In imaginative play, children can create an imaginary world in which they get to make all of the decisions!

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Implementing Imaginative Play

     Finding time, space, settings, and opportunities for imaginative play will hopefully be easier than you think! Here are some ideas to consider:

Boredom: Let children be bored.  Boredom encourages them to use their brains and get creative. One way to do this is by limiting screen time, as most activities with screens involve passively consuming content. Don’t allow the tablet, video game, or TV screen to provide the source of entertainment, but instead encourage your children to generate their own entertainment creatively. Humans have lived for thousands of years without screens, so in many ways it is more natural to use imagination rather than having it “spoon fed” to us through a screen.

Don’t micromanage: Get out of their way! Give them a few toys (or not!) and let them figure it out. You do not have to suggest anything or direct their play. Who knows what type of world they may create without adult interference. You may find them recreating a scene from a favorite story…or creating an entirely new story!

Outdoor time: Get children outside. Trees, bushes, and other vegetation can become all sorts of things in a child’s mind, such as a hideout, a house, or a castle.

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Suggested Playthings

     Sometimes less truly is more.  Simplifying the toys our children have and focusing on those that enable children to utilize their creativity can be quite helpful. An added advantage is that many of these playthings I will mention are far more affordable than many of the fancy, high profile toys out there. Here are some of my favorite items that encourage imaginative play:

Building Blocks: With blocks, children are able to create any sort of world that interests them!  Some of my favorite blocks are called Tree Blocks.  They are made from trunks and branches of trees.  These are great for creating gnome homes and other fantastical dwellings.

Natural Materials: Items from nature such as rocks, shells, sticks, flowers, and seed pods that you can collect from walks and hikes can become so many things in a child’s imagination!  Making clothing for the fairies from natural materials is truly enchanting.

Textiles: Play silks are a favorite of mine.  They are typically dyed squares of silk, kind of like a silk scarf.  They can be used to create many things from dress-up cloths (fairy, pirate, etc) to doll or animal carriers.  Fabric is great too.  Using an old sheet to make a fort in the back yard or the park can provide for endless fun!  Or letting children use fabric scraps to sew whatever they want can truly spark their creativity and give them a wonderful sense of accomplishment.

Dress-up Clothes: An old hat, funny shoes, or a cast-off bridesmaid’s dress all provide delightful fun.  Children can become anyone they want to with just a few items.  Thrift stores are wonderful places to build up a wardrobe!

Boxes: Ah, the trusty cardboard box.  No article on play would be complete without this classic standby!  Small boxes can be used for building or hiding treasures.  Large boxes can turn into forts, houses, schools, or stores.

     Any and all of these ideas can be combined in different ways to create wonderfully fulfilling activities. Your children will derive tremendous value from the opportunity to play creatively and though they might need encouragement from you to break existing “screen habits,” the advantages of imaginative play are well worth it.

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