Imaginative Play

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What is imaginative play?

Playing is how children begin to engage with the world and make sense of their place in it. Imaginative play allows children to explore their creativity through role-playing and acting out different experiences that are of interest to them. It can look like building a blanket fort in the living room or dressing up as a ballerina with a tutu and putting on a performance for family and friends.

Kids’ imaginative role play may look like a tea party with stuffed animal guests or a fantastic play-doh pizza fit for a queen. Whatever shape it may take, play is an integral part of a toddler’s health and development. It prepares them to tackle life's challenges, cope with outside stressors and improve overall brain structure. These are all critical life skills that can be developed in a fun way as a natural part of growing up.

What does imaginative play mean?

Imaginative play is a bit different from active play. Active play usually involves expending energy, like running around on a playground, swinging, sliding and chasing friends. Instead, imaginative play centres on make-believe and fantasy. In this mode, children can create fairy tales and grapple with several different perspectives, ideas, and emotions.

Kids’ imaginative play is open-ended and teaches children to innately trust their own sense of creativity, which builds a strong foundation for stress management, social and emotional resilience. Through imaginative play, children learn to bond with their peers and their parents. They also learn how to effectively communicate complex ideas, balance their emotions and other people’s.

What are the benefits of imaginative play?

Some of the primary benefits of imaginative play include: • Increases emotional aptitude by allowing children to understand and express their feelings through role-play

• Provides opportunities for children to interpret and identify with the adult world

• Develops social skills like negotiation, taking turns and sharing, problem-solving and experimentation

• Develops language skills like talking, listening and engaging with others • Decreases disruptive behaviours, encouraging children to find safety, relax and unwind

• Improve concentration and focus

Stages of Imaginative Pretend Play

When do toddlers start Imaginative Pretend Play? 

Working to encourage pretend play from the start is crucial for optimal development. As early as 12 months (sometimes sooner), children will work to communicate with you and begin to enjoy playing with others, which is when they can start to benefit from imaginative play.

From birth to 2 years old, parents should focus on making comprehensive introductions to the world.

• Read and sing to your child using animated voices and expressions. Encourage rhythm and movement.

• Show your baby the world from different vantage points. The world looks different from your baby carrier close to your body or from the floor.

• Provide a mirror for your child to learn and practice different facial expressions.

From 2-5 years old, your task is to create situations for your child that provoke curiosity about the world around them and how they interact with it.

• Explore with your child. Take them to new places like to store, park, zoo, beach or library. Allow them to observe different landscapes and characters in those environments. Go on walks outside when weather permits and encourage active play, too.

• Encourage dialogue by asking your children inquisitive questions about the things around them. If you see a bumblebee, explain what it is and what it's doing. If your child could fly like the bee, where would they go and what would they do?

• Read books to your child regularly. Allow them to re-tell the story according to their understanding.

• Host imaginary parties for stuffed animal guests and siblings. This scenario invites creative role-playing and re-affirms social skills.

• Create music together by incorporating new creative sounds into familiar tunes.

• Plan playdates with neighbours and friends to encourage socialization and permit children to engage in imaginative play together.

From 5-7 years old, set the stage for less structured play that relies fully on your child’s imagination. These situations involve significantly less prompting from you, just safe confines for endless play.

• Write and illustrate your own stories. The characters, their names and the settings are of your child’s creation. Explore the challenges of drafting the story and completing the finished product.

• What can you create with a cardboard box? Let your child lead the way. You may wind up with a car, a boat, a house, an animal, or a rocket ship.

Follow your child’s storyline and encourage creativity in whatever shape that may take.

Autism Imaginative Play

Encouraging imaginative play for children on the Autism spectrum is essential and involves different developmental challenges that parents should address. To effectively engage in imaginative play with a child on the spectrum, begin by encouraging joint attention to signal social awareness cues than children with autism often miss.

Though verbal communication is often a challenge for many children with autism, there are ways other than speaking that encourage communication. Consider adding visual supports or employing different methods, like apps to increase communication and facilitate play.

Expand your child's interests by helping your child develop an interest in new things rather than a few hyper-focused interests that may, unfortunately, limit the choice of playmates. Though a child with autism may develop at a different pace, progressing gradually through the stages of play can help pinpoint the skills needed to advance. With that understanding, encourage your child to learn those skills in other areas that may help them progress to later developmental stages of play.


How to encourage Imaginative Play

As parents, the goal is to raise confident, well-rounded children. By promoting creativity through imaginative play at every opportunity, you lay the strong foundation for self-reliance and successfully navigating the world as an adult.

To do this, encourage curiosity. Ask questions and thoughtfully listen to the answers. Read books, play dress-up, and set aside areas of the house devoted to pretending around whatever interests your child. Ultimately, the best way to encourage imaginative play is to provide unencumbered time and a safe space for your child to explore their imagination.