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Imaginative Play and Child Development

When I was young one of my favorite things to do was to build a blanket fort in my living room and create an entire world that was all my own. I could spend hours imagining who (or what) would be there and who I would decide to keep out. I was not aware of it at the time, but I was gaining valuable skills for the future that would allow me to self-regulate my emotions, lower my anxiety, and assist me with peer interactions and play time at school. Studies have shown that free, unstructured playtime in children has contributed to innovation and creativity in adulthood. Not only that, but it has been proven that when parents are involved in imaginative play, that children learn to become more balanced and empathic individuals. Parents getting involved with imaginative play with their children has also been linked to school readiness and a more expanded vocabulary in children ages 3-5.

One of the pitfalls of our society is that much of the play activities for our children are too scheduled and organized. Extracurricular activities like soccer, gymnastics, piano lessons, fencing, Dance class, baseball, etc. are excellent for the social and physical development of children, but when these activities, along with school, end up taking up all of you child’s free time there is not much room for imaginative free play. This, along with the prevalence of screen time with television, video games, and the myriad of handheld devices, our children today are forgetting how to play. Because of this, many children are not learning the skills to express empathy, become a good friend, regulate their own emotions, and even how to concentrate in school. Imaginative play is something that children do naturally together. Most parents have witnessed their child in the pediatrician’s or dentist’s waiting room where there are toys to keep them occupied until it is their turn. Children do not have to be taught “how” to play with these toys, it typically just happens, and the majority of the time they want you to play as well. Every child is different and gravitates to different types of play, your child is unique! Figure out what type of play they enjoy and don’t be afraid to crawl on the floor and enjoy it with them every now and then.

There are many ways to promote imagination in your child. One idea to try out would be to utilize cardboard boxes, toilet paper and paper towel rolls, old milk jugs, egg cartons, or anything else you can find around the house for some playtime art. Help them be crafty! Create a racecar, a robot, or even a doll house from household items! This not only fosters imagination and creativity, but it allows you to be a part of their creative world.

Another idea is to take old shirts, dresses, suit coats, and hats and create a “dress up” box or tub in their room. With this you can help them to act out their favorite book or story, or better yet, create their own!

Music is something that most children enjoy, you can make musical instruments out of many things around your house. Pots and pans and wooden spoons make great drums, water bottles filled with dry rice or beans make great shakers, and 2 paper plates glued together with metal curtain rings make a great tambourine!

Depending on the age of your child, grab some finger paints or some watercolor or acrylic paints and allow them some time to use their imagination and be creative. If you have the space, pick a wall in your house that is designated as their “Art Gallery” where their art can be displayed for all to see.

Let them build a fort - in the kitchen, in the living room, in their bedroom, wherever! These forts can become a safe place for them to read, draw, nap, create new worlds, and most of all, use their imagination. And if they are old enough, let them spend the night in there. Let them imagine they are camping out in a wild forest!

The bottom line is, children do not stay children forever, and their sense of wonder and imagination fades sooner than we would like. These critical years of imaginative play help to foster creativity and social skills that cannot be taught in a classroom or on a soccer field. So, don’t be afraid to turn off the video games, leave the dishes in the sink for another hour, put the tablet and iPhone down, and block out some play time. You might be surprised at how much fun you have with a little imagination time of your own!

Linn, S. (2009). The case for make believe: Saving play in a commercialized world. New York: New Press.

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