Kids play make-believe because it’s fun, but did you know that imaginative play is also a vital component of normal child development and should be encouraged?
What is imaginative play?
Simply, it’s role play. It’s acting out various tasks and plots. It’s expressing positive and negative feelings, discovering choices, and experiencing the outcome of multiple decisions in a safe, controlled environment. Imaginative play is pretend play. Saving the princess, slaying the dragon, and camping under the living room stars are all age-old examples.
As defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), play “is an activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, and results in joyful discovery. Play is voluntary and often has no extrinsic goals; it is fun and often spontaneous.”
“Imaginative” play is different from “active” play. Active play relates to games of tag, swinging on swings, sliding down slides, and hiking through the woods. Imaginative play is make-believe and fantasy. It’s curiouser and curiouser because we can’t wake up the sleeping giant who sold my gold doubloons to a troll living under the stairs.
Imaginative play, or make believe as it is sometimes referred to, occurs when a child role plays experiences that are of interest to them, such as playing ‘school’ with their toys. Children may engage in imaginative play alone or with others. There are a number of benefits that imaginative play contributes to a child’s development.
What are the benefits of imaginative play?
It fosters creativity by providing a safe space for children to act out scenarios of their choosing, including situations that they may not be able to experience in real life. For example, a 5-year-old who is unable to go to a restaurant without her parents can, through imaginative play with her friend, create a pretend tea party they can both enjoy at home.
It promotes physical development in a fun way. Activities such as fitting doll’s arms through the sleeves of her jacket are great for hand-eye coordination, as is learning to move and control her hands in different ways.
Language and Social Development
When children engage in pretend play, they’re actively experimenting with the social roles of life. Children also learn to have conversations, which they enact by talking to their dolls and action figures and imagining responses. Playing with action figures also helps build self-esteem, as any child can be a hero – just by pretending.
Also, children can expand their vocabulary and experiment freely with words in their own space and time, without the risk of embarrassment if they use the words incorrectly. By pretend playing with others, children begin to understand that words give them the power to re-enact a story and to organise play.
It boosts development of problem solving and self-regulation skills. Imaginative play with peers can create situations in which not everyone gets what they want. For example, when more than one child wants to be King of the castle, the child who doesn’t get what he wants needs to learn how to manage unpleasant emotions in order for play to continue.
It gives parents a fun way to teach positive behaviour to their kids. Parents can introduce situations into play to create “incidental learning” opportunities. For example, when giving their doll a shower, the parent might ask the child questions (e.g. “what happens next?”), make comments (“the water is nice and warm”), and discuss dilemmas (“Oh no, Dolly ran out of soap!”). These teach the child important functional skills and the ability to work through tricky situations with guidance.
Tips to encourage imaginative play
Because imaginative play is such a healthy contributor to a child’s overall development, parents should actively encourage their child when they engage in imaginative play.
- Provide plenty of props, play partners (both similar-aged peers as well as adults) and play time.
- Dress-up parties are also a great way to both promote imaginary play and keep children entertained!
- Involve them in your daily chores and incorporate incidental learning into these situations. For example, while you are preparing dinner, you might invite your child to cook alongside you with their play items.
What’s the right age to introduce imaginative play to a child?
There is no set age to introduce imaginative play into a child’s world. You can start by introducing simple items that are safe for the child, such as a soft toy. Create situations to engage that item in play, like having your child’s doll give them a kiss on the cheek.