Imaginative Play: What Is It And How To Encourage?

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Imaginative play fascinates most kids. Playing a fictional character, superhero, or doctor is normal during childhood. It is quite fun to get involved in such pretend-play.

Children tend to imitate what they see or hear. For example, their imagination can turn a couch into a supersonic set, towel as a cape, or play gun as a real weapon. The imaginations are limitless, and it could also enhance their cognitive development. Read on to know more about imaginative play in toddlers and kids.

What Is Imaginative Play?

The famous psychologist Jean Piaget defined imaginative play as “a symbolic transposition, which subjects things to the child’s activity, without rules or limitations” (1). Also known as ‘make-believe,’ imaginative play is when children imagine themselves to be characters in a certain situation that they may have seen or experienced. These characters could be someone the child admires and wishes to be or someone they find interesting. Children can indulge in role-playing alone with their toys or with their friends.

Why Encourage Imaginative Play In Toddlers?

Like many other games, imaginative play also has certain attributes that could help in the growth and development of children. Below are some of the benefits of imaginative play for a toddler.

  1. Development of social skills: When involved in make-believe play, children often talk and behave like someone else. By adopting someone else’s demeanor and body language, they exercise their observation skills. According to research, children engaged in role-playing have to react on their own when playing a character (2). It could help a toddler better understand and practice their social skills, especially when role-playing with friends or parents.
  1. Emotional skills development: Role-play could provide a toddler an outlet for their feelings and emotions (3). Also, when playing a character, they may learn to empathize and see the world from a different perspective.
  1. Language improvement: Pretend-play makes children use words and phrases that they have heard or read. This helps them develop their language and diction. Also, when a toddler is involved in the re-enactment of a story, they learn to make connections between written and spoken language (3).
  1. Enhancement of thinking skills: Imaginative play could help develop general cognitive and thinking skills in toddlers (2). For instance, if your child wants to play Batman, they might need a Batmobile, for which they may use an empty cardboard box or a set of pillows to create something similar to a car.
  1. Development of symbolic thinking: Toddlers often explore and understand objects through symbolic associations, which is commonly found in imaginative play (4). For instance, hand them a pen and a ruler, and the next thing you know, the child has attached the pen to the ruler to create a make-believe airplane. Symbolic thinking may help a child understand various concepts, such as language and object-word association.

How Can You Encourage Imaginative Play?

Now that you know the benefits of imaginative play, you can encourage your toddler to try imaginative play in the following ways.

  1. Allocate special play space: You can start by allocating a special space in your house for your toddler. It can be a room or an empty corner of the house where your child can build a new fantasy world. You do not need expensive toys to do it. You can make do with any old piece of furniture or some extra boxes that can be shaped to look like a dollhouse or a spaceship or anything your child wants.
  1. Make a tiny tent: You can build a canopy or tent and stuff it with pillows and softs toys that your toddler likes playing with. Keep special prop boxes filled with stuff that you do not require, such as old hats, scarves, jackets, wigs, and fake jewelry, so that your child can play dress-up. Ensure that the items do not have sharp edges and are safe for your child.
  1. Show interest in your toddler’s games: If they need a partner to play with, become that partner for them. When they get stuck with their storyline in their game, give your creative inputs but don’t complete it for them. Let them think and try to come up with their own conclusion. If they do something that seems absurd to you as an adult, do not mock them for it. Let them be the ultimate ruler of the universe that they have created for themselves.
  1. Fix playdates: You can invite your toddler’s friends home and allow them to explore the imaginary world created by your child. Alternatively, allow your toddler to play with other children so they can use their combined imagination to create new characters in a new or existing world.

Remember that imaginative play need not be intelligent or educational since it leans more to the creative side. Your toddler’s stories and games do not have to be plausible; instead, all that is required is your child’s involvement and their need for fun.

Ideas For Imaginative Play

Birth to one year

For your infant, you can try playing the following games.

  1. Try imitating your baby. When your baby starts cooing, you coo with them, as well. When they make funny faces, you make it, too. This helps lay the foundation for social-emotional skills in the baby.
  1. Show them colorful and interesting pictures in a book or photo album. You can try showing them images of objects or people that they come across regularly. It can help develop memory and recall.
  1. Sing aloud and animatedly to your baby. You can try changing your voice and making different facial expressions to hold your baby’s attention.
  1. Wrap your baby in a carrier around your body and move and dance when going about your household chores.
  1. When exploring on their own, babies tend to put anything in their mouths. Give them things and eatables that are safe so they can taste them and start identifying objects by their taste.
  1. Help your baby with facial recognition by holding a mirror in front of their face. This can also help them observe their very own facial expressions.
  1. Use colorful props or toys to grab your baby’s attention. Allow the baby to hold them and explore them in any way they want.
  1. Play a game of peekaboo by hiding behind a pillow or a book, so your baby reaches out to move it away from your face.

One to three years of age

When your baby turns into a toddler, you can help stir their imagination with the following activities.

  1. Visit interesting outdoor places: Take your child to the zoo, the local park, the beach, or a museum where they can notice various backgrounds, different people, and unique environments. Allow them to touch and learn about different surfaces that they see in their environment.
  1. Spend time with nature: Take your toddler for a walk in the park so they can notice the birds flying and chirping and other children running and playing. Allow your baby to indulge in some tummy time on a mat in the park.
  1. Have a baby picnic: If you have a backyard, set up a picnic spot where your child and their stuffed toys can have a great time outdoors. If you do not have a backyard, you can do it at a beach or a park.
  1. Read stories to your child: To instill a love of reading or help develop language skills and imagination, you can read stories aloud to your toddler regularly. After finishing the story, you can ask questions to help develop your child’s memory.

Three years and older

  1. School play: Bring out your child’s stuffed toys and place them in a row as they will be the students of the school where your child teaches. Ask your child to teach them whatever they learned at school.
  1. Sing rhymes and songs: Play nursery rhymes and songs on the music player and stop it midway to allow your child to finish it.
  1. Candy shop: Playing with candies has its own benefits. One benefit is that your child learns to count and identify colors. Let your child pretend-play as a shopkeeper, and you or their friends can be the customers. Pay them some fake money and buy candies in return.
  1. Mailman: Make some paper envelopes, each of a different color, and label them with different names. Your child plays the mailman who drops the labeled letters in the respective paper envelopes.
  1. Doctor: You can buy a toy doctor’s set available at a toy store. Play the patient while your child pretends to check you with the stethoscope and prick you with the plastic injection.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are the stages of imaginative play?

Pretend play or imaginative play may be divided into five stages as per the age-appropriate behavior of children (5)

  • Self-pretend (12-18 months), where toddlers pretend to do actions, such as eat or drink using a toy utensil set.
  • Simple imagination (18-24 months), where they imagine and pretend to do actions with toys or people, such as feeding a doll or moving a toy car.
  • Pretending to do familiar actions (24 to 30 months), where children put together more than two actions, such as making tea and serving dolls using a toy tea set.
  • Pretending to perform less familiar actions (30-36 months), where kids pretend without the toy, object including, acting as a doctor or waiter.
  • Role play alone or in a group (3 to 5 years), where children enact different themes such as characters in stories and superheroes with their dialogues.

2. What age does imaginative play stop?

Children indulge in various sports and games and look for new and challenging activities at around 9 to 12 years of age. They start understanding complex concepts and seek to explore their surroundings (6). Around this age children may stop imaginative play.

There is no set age to introduce a child to imaginative play. It can start as early as infancy and continue later too. Games as simple as peek-a-boo, cops and thieves, or playing with toys such as kitchen sets, doctor’s kits, etc., are all examples of imaginative play. Imagination-driven play helps build your child’s creativity, social skills, language, and thought process. Parents can encourage their children to engage in creative play by buying them open-ended toys, making tiny tents, and showing interest in their child’s games. So go all out, build that tent, make a castle of cushions, and use those ladles from the kitchen as swords!

Key Pointers

  • Imaginative play is where children imagine and pretend to be characters in a situation they may have witnessed previously.
  • Imagination-driven play helps build the child’s developmental skills, improve their language, and enhance their symbolic thinking.
  • Fixing play dates, participating and encouraging your child to engage in imaginative play, and giving them an allocated playing area can encourage them to try imaginative play.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
6. Basic Abilities and Play Preferences: Birth to Age 12; The Natural Child Project
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Rohit Garoo

Rohit Garoo did MBA from Osmania University and holds a certificate in Developmental Psychology from The University of Queensland. The zoologist-botanist turned writer-editor has over 8 years of experience in content writing, content marketing, and copywriting. He has also done an MBA in marketing and human resources and worked in the domains of market research and e-commerce. Rohit writes topics... more

Dr. Neha Bhave Salankar

(MD)
Dr. Neha Bhave Salankar is a consultant psychiatrist at Bhave Institute of Mental Health based in Nagpur. Having been a meritorious student throughout, she bagged the prestigious gold medal for medicine in MBBS as well as in MD psychiatry. She also took training in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru. She is... more

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