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Why is imaginative play important?

brother and sister playing under a fort of blankets

Key points:

  1. Play is a key component in a child’s development, allowing them to develop imagination, cognitive skills, physical agility, and emotional strength.
  2. Imaginative play, or pretend play, is an important type of play that stimulates creativity, impulse inhibition, and empathy.
  3. Imaginative play emerges at around 12 to 18 months of age and involves children assigning feelings to objects and opening up outlets for expressing thoughts and ideas.
  4. Parents can encourage their child’s imaginative play by reading stories, providing simple toys, limiting use of electronics, creating themed toy boxes, and making uninterrupted time to play and explore ideas.

When people think of play, they automatically think of children engaging in physical exercises such as tag, ball games, or playing on slides and swings, and they tend to forget about imaginative play andi its importance.

Play is a key component in development in a child’s early years. Even the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in the Convention on the Rights of the Child has recognized it as a right for every child! Play allows children to develop their imagination, physical agility, cognitive prowess, and emotional strength. It is through play that children at a very early age learn to interact with people and understand the world around them. 

But although physical play is the first thing that comes to mind, this is not the only kind of play. In fact, there is another type of play —imaginative or pretend play— that has caught the eye of many researchers, educators, and psychologists because of the many benefits it may provide.

What is imaginative play and when does it emerge? 

Imaginative play stimulates the senses and generates opportunities for exploration and creative thinking that can help your little one improve various language, emotional, social, and cognitive skills; including creativity, impulse inhibition, and empathy! It also helps your little one with self-regulation, because children collaborate and agree with an imaginary environment and conform to the roles they create. 

According to research, imaginative play emerges when children are around 12 to 18 months of age. In fact, by the time your little one turns 18 months old, you will begin noticing behaviors such as trying to feed a doll with a spoon or picking a block and bringing it to their ears as if it were a phone. Although early forms of pretend play are mostly solitary, by the time your child turns two, you will notice that they enjoy the company of their peers. 

But what can parents do to promote this kind of play?

Research has shown that, for example, parents who read stories at bedtime or those who talk frequently to their children by describing and explaining everyday actions, objects, events, nature, and people, are the ones who encourage pretend play the most.

If you want to encourage your little one’s pretend play, check out the following tips:

  • Storytime: Invite your little one to tell their favorite story or ask them to imagine a different ending or plot twist in the story. For instance, you might want to try and ask them questions like: “What do you think will happen next?” or “What if the boy can’t find the treasure?”
  • Toys: Make sure your little one has frequent access to simple toys, dolls, or stuffed animals. These don’t have to be bought in a store, you can create them out of household items, such as socks or shoe boxes! Through imaginative play, children tend to easily assign feelings to objects or open-ended toys, which is a great outlet for them to express their thoughts and ideas. 
  • Limit their use of electronics: Try to limit their use of electronic toys and their time on screens, you can let them use it with apps that help them develop skills, but try not to let them use it all day instead of using toys. 
  • Toy boxes: Create a box or a bag filled with materials that correspond to a particular theme, for example, a restaurant or the zoo. Have several different materials and you will see your toddler take their creativity to the next level.
  • Make time: Pretend play doesn’t fit into time 15-minute segments. Try to keep acting the new story your little one created for a few days, so they can explore and enhance their creativity. Keep in mind that no material, environment, or story can replace uninterrupted time to play and explore ideas!

Next time you see your child engaged in pretend play, don’t rush them into other activities, allow them to play! You can also go along with them by asking them questions or making comments about their pretend game. 


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