Why Imaginative Play is important

August 25, 2014

Imaginative Play gives you, the parent a chance to see and identify your child’s interests, talents, skills and learning style. I received a bit of very interesting advice from a grandfatherly gentlemen while waiting to board my airplane. He watched with amusement as my children played the time away and, reflecting, he shared that he and his wife had taken the time every year or two as their children were growing to stop and reflect on their interests and skills. They kept notes on these observations. When Johnnie was two and given an assortment of toys, he chose to stack blocks; when he was five he was the one who volunteered to build the castle out of duplo; in Jr. High he chose science projects that involved construction of some sort. His sister enjoyed building, too, but when given free reign, she gravitated toward the theatrical. Her favorite play was role playing and make believe when she was two and at five she was the family storyteller. By the time she was in high school she was on stage and loving drama. This gentlemen explained that his children did explore their worlds in other ways, but after keeping notes over the years their patterns and interests became more clear. When his children began to think about careers, he was able to offer them some insight into the things they liked and were good at (we tend to like the things we’re good at, don’t we?) So, watch your children at play and you’ll see their personalities, skills and talents emerge.

Play time is also an arena where children learn empathy, language skills, and problem solving. Most significantly it gives children the courage to try new things. And, well, playing is just plain fun!

Imaginative play is your child’s schoolroom; it’s where they do the work of growing up. While they’re having fun children are learning and acquiring skills, ideas and habits that will help them successfully negotiate life. Some of those benefits are:

Communication skills. These come through practice and children get lots of practice talking, learning to listen and negotiating during pretend games. They have opportunities to polish the essential social skills of taking turns, talking nicely and learning to share (don’t you wish all your adult friends and coworkers would exhibit those skills?). Through play, our children come to understand that others have feelings and needs and they grow to be empathetic and generous with those around them. They learn to ask for what they want and to negotiate to get it. They learn to talk so people will listen and to listen to what others want and feel. Good stuff.

Creativity. Play time is our children’s golden opportunity to develop their creativity and imagination. We want our kids to think for themselves, to see outside the box, to feel confident trying new things and to dream big. Make believe play lets them do just that. Ask questions. Why can’t puppies be purple and fly? Why does ice cream melt? People who use their imaginations and creativity are the great inventors of our time. Whether they create machines and technologies to make our lives safer and easier or creatively negotiate conflict in the world these great and innovative people learned to look with an open perspective and curiosity when they were young. Probably through play.

Roles. There’s so much to choose from out there; how did you ever decide what you wanted to be when you grew up? Through pretend play, children can try on different roles and learn about the responsibilities of the adult world. What do I like? What am I good at? What do Dads do at work? What is Mom’s job? Play time can increase their self esteem and confidence so our children learn to see themselves as capable and worthy. I like to draw (or sing or dance or build). I’m good at telling stories (or painting or playing catch).

Emotions. During play children learn to express feelings-negative or positive. Have you ever watched your child re-enact an event where someone was angry or sad? Like scolding his stuffed lion for running into the street, but then giving it lots of hugs and reassurance? They’re learning what feelings are and how to express them appropriately; they re-create events so they can understand what happened and maybe deal a bit with the feelings they had.

Exploration. Having a safe place to explore can give children confidence to try new things and to learn about cause and effect (too much water spoils the paint; throwing balls indoors can break things, dirt and water makes mud pies!) And it’s okay to make mistakes; you just try again. They are building their cognitive skills, learning to organize information and beginning to correlate differing objects and situations. Valuable real life stuff.

Time to focus. Having uninterrupted time for extended play can increase your child’s ability to concentrate, to really focus on a task or event. Get in ‘the zone’ as it were. They can bring the story to a conclusion. Being able to plan a project and see it through to the end is a real world talent that can give your child an immense sense of accomplishment. What an incredible skill to possess!

So, you see, it’s not just play. It’s the work of childhood. Important character and skill building stuff. We want to see you help your child be the most successful person they can be!

In a nutshell, imaginative play allows children to:

  • develop communication skills (listening, talking, negotiating)
  • develop social skills (take turns, talk nicely, share)
  • learn empathy, caring (others have feelings and needs)
  • develop creativity and imagination (dream, aspire, pretend)
  • learn to identify with the adult world (roles, responsibilities)
  • increase self esteem and confidence (see themselves as capable and worthy)
  • learn to express feelings (in appropriate ways)
  • have a safe place to explore and try new things
  • can relax and unwind
  • learn about cause and effect
  • provides extended play (get totally absorbed, get in the ‘zone’)

For those of you who like to read the studies that have explored the effect creative play had on cognitive and social development, check this blog post and its accompanying bibliography:

The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development. Imaginative play is a vital component to normal child development. Published March 6, 2012 by Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. in Beautiful Minds