By Kathy Eugster, MA
Imaginative and creative play is not only a wonderful way for children to have fun, it is also a very natural way for children to learn about the world. This type of play involves a child’s whole body: physically, mentally and socially. Actively using their large and small muscles as well as their different senses in play, children develop healthy, strong, and complete neurological connections in their brains.
This article will help parents with some ideas on how to set up imaginative and creative play activities for their 3 – 10 year-old children that will encourage healthy development.
What is Imaginative and Creative Play?
Children play imaginatively and creatively in various different ways based on many factors such as age, play environment, toys provided, etc. Children can engage in imaginative and creative play by themselves or with others.
Imaginative (imaginary) play happens when children use their imaginations to create pretend and make-believe scenarios. Children can engage in this type of play using almost any object to represent something. This is known as symbolic play. For example, a block could be a car, several different sized stones could be a family, a box could be a boat, or a stick could be a person.
Children also generally have available different types of toys, such as little people or dolls, small toy animals, toy cars and other vehicles, puppets, toy household and real-life items, etc. to use in imaginary play. Additionally, children can act out a particular role themselves and become part of a play drama, often dressing up and using props for this kind of imaginary play.
Arts and crafts, and construction/building play are also ways for children to express their imaginations and creativity. This kind of play encourages more focus and concentration, and develops fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination. It also allows children to feel proud of themselves and gain a sense of mastery after they have created something themselves.
The type of play known as games with rules includes, for example, board games, card games, and structured sports activities. This type of play becomes important for children as they grow older, especially from ages 6 or 7 and up. With this type of play, the focus is on learning and playing by the rules and often involves a winner or loser. There is much less room for children to use their imaginations and creative abilities with this type of play because it is structured and rule-bound. (That being said, children can often play creatively with games or activities that have rules by making up their own rules.) Although games and activities with rules are important for children in learning to deal with competition, structure, and the real world, creative and imaginative play is also very important for children’s healthy development and should not be ignored in favor of games with rules.
Why Encourage Imaginative and Creative Play?
As stated above, playing in imaginative and creative ways are some of the best ways for children to learn about their world. Imaginary play allows children to act out scenarios that may be of interest to them. Children love to play out situations that have happened to them in real life, for example, playing family, school or medical scenarios. They will experiment by playing out different roles, perspectives and outcomes to get a better understanding of a wide variety of different situations.
When playing out these different roles and outcomes, children will experience a wide range of feelings. This type of play helps children to understand and manage many different feelings, some of which may even be unpleasant.
Imaginative and creative play provides many opportunities to children for sensorimotor play. Sensorimotor play happens when children use their different senses in combination with movement. We now know that sensorimotor play is extremely important for children in the healthy development of their nervous systems, and for the development of self-regulation skills.
Imaginative and creative play allows children to express themselves non-verbally. Children do not have fully developed expressive language skills, so play is like a language for children in that it can allow adults to better understand children’s feelings and perspectives.
Imaginative and creative play is also very important for cognitive development. Children are free to think up new ideas, to experiment, to problem-solve, to plan ahead, and to achieve goals all in the context of a play environment.
What Will Block Imaginative and Creative Play?
Screens and Electronic Devices:
These days, electronic devices are a normal and necessary part of life for practically all of us, children included. However, one of the most concerning aspects of raising children is the amount of time they spend in front of these electronic devices.
When children focus their attention onto a screen, it can be a very passive form of learning or entertainment, generally using visual and auditory stimulation, and may or may not require some response using fine motor skills. This can be viewed as a somewhat artificial way of learning about the world, especially for children under 6 or 7 years, because it does not engage children in a kinesthetic manner using their entire bodies.
Lack of Unstructured or Free Time:
Parents often want to encourage their children to learn and may believe the only way for them to learn is through structured activities. Of course, children need educational opportunities and chances to learn specific skills, both inside and outside home and school. However, a too rigid schedule that has many structured activities where the main focus is on the achievement of specific outcomes can become detrimental and cause not only stress and anxiety for children, but also can prevent children from using their imaginations and creative skills.
It is important to allow your child enough free time to engage in imaginative and creative play either by him or herself, with other children, or with you. The good news is that, as a parent, you can get involved with your child to support his or her imaginative and creative play. Although children can play imaginatively and creatively on their own or with other children, they generally love it when their parents are interested and can provide focused attention during play time.
How Can You Encourage Your Child to Play Imaginatively and Creatively?
There are a number of ways you can encourage and support your child to play imaginatively and creatively. Let’s have a look at these strategies:
- Creating the play environment: Have toys available that promote creativity and imagination.
- Using child-directed play strategies: Allowing your child freedom to be imaginative and creative.
- Using parent-directed play strategies: Prompting imaginary and creative play.
Creating the Play Environment
Although children can generally use almost any object to represent something, it is important to provide children with safe and age-appropriate toys. Toys and objects that encourage creativity and imagination are often “open-ended” which means they can be used in many different ways. For example, a block could be used to build a tower, represent a car, or be part of a game.
The following toys are suitable for children between 3 and 10 years old. Remember that toddlers need to be supervised closely with small play items, water, playdough, etc. Play materials suitable for children 3 years old and over are usually not suitable to those under 3 years.
Small Toy Figures and Objects
- These can be small plastic, wooden or metal figures and objects (or stuffed toys or puppets), such as little people in various roles, fantasy figures (such as superheroes, space aliens, monsters, pirates, princesses, etc.), animals (pets, farm, wild, birds, fish, dinosaurs, etc.)
- Transportation toys such as cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, construction vehicles, fire trucks, ambulance, police cars, trains, airplanes, boats, etc.
- Miscellaneous items such as popsicle sticks, blocks, stones, shells, dried flowers, fake gemstones, that can be used in many ways such as for fences, trees or plants, mountains, caves, treasure, furniture, etc.
- Shelters such as a houses, schools, hospitals, castles, forts, space outposts, barns, etc. (boxes make great shelters).
Hint: Children usually love it when you take a photo of what they have set up with the toys.
- Old clothes, costumes, shoes, hats, scarves, capes, masks, jewelry, magic wands, purses, wallets, backpacks, fantasy/pirate/knight (foam) sword and shield
Hint: You may want to video your child in costume for fun viewing later. Alternately, a mirror is fun for children to view themselves.
Real Life Toys
- Medical items such as in a doctor, dentist or veterinarian’s kit
- Baby doll with accessories such as a bed, bathtub, potty, bottle, clothes, blankets, diapers
- Cash register with pretend money
- Food, stove, oven, sink, dishes, utensils, pots, lids
- Household items such as tools, keys, vacuum, phone, computer, ipad
- Musical instruments
Hint: Children love these “props” for pretend play.
- Foam balls, foam bat or hockey stick, indoor bowling set, ring toss, velcro darts, indoor basketball hoop for back of door
- Pillows and foam cushions
- Large stuffed animals or people
Hint: Refrain from following specific rules for games; let your child make up the rules to promote creativity.
- Plain building blocks of different shapes, sizes and colour, Lego or other construction-type toys or building sets, magnetic blocks, marble run, etc.
Hint: In order to stimulate your child’s imagination, try to avoid making structures according to specific instructions; allow your child to create something.
Drawing, Craft and Expressive Materials
- Paper, in variety of sizes and colours, markers, pencils, erasers, crayons, glue, scissors, tape, straws, popsicle sticks, stickers, wool, string
- Paints and brushes
- Container of water and/or play sand
Hint: To encourage creativity, avoid craft projects that have instructions for a specific outcome and let your child create his or her own designs.
About “Messy” Play
Children love messy play which usually involves paints, water, glue, play-dough, sand, etc! When you bring out messy play items, make sure you are available to assist, supervise, and clean up. Also, it is best to keep messy play confined to a specific area. This may involve putting down a plastic sheet or shower curtain or taking the activity outdoors. Set limits that the messy items must stay within this area or else the messy play activity gets put away for the day. Have old large t-shirts available for messy play.
Inexpensive Toy Ideas
- Remember that secondhand stores and garage sales are good places to look for inexpensive toys.
- Larger Boxes can be used for houses, forts, castles, barns, schools, stoves, puppet theatres, etc.
- Smaller boxes or food containers can be used for furniture, cars, dishes, airplanes, etc.
- Natural items such as stones, sticks, pieces of wood, shells, dried flowers or leaves, etc. can be used very creatively.
- Old socks can be used as puppets; sew on buttons, glue on hair, or draw on features.
Quantity of Toys
Please don’t feel that you need to provide your child with each and every toy listed! Instead, try to select a few toys from each of the categories listed. Your child will gravitate towards favorite toys and play activities, however, having a variety of different kinds of toys available for your child to freely choose from will inspire creativity.
Using Child-Directed Play Strategies
The best imaginative and creative play for your child will occur when he or she is the one that leads and directs the play activity, not when you tell your child what to do and how to do it. In other words, child-directed play is the type of play that will allow your child the freedom to be imaginative and creative.
Please go to my Blog page to find a number of articles with information on child-directed play. For comprehensive guidelines on child-directed play, I am offering an eBook, Child-Directed Playtime: Parents and Children Connecting Through Play.
In child-directive play, you put yourself in a nondirective role and allow your child to lead and direct the play activity. You allow your child to make choices and decisions on what to do and how to do things and you follow your child’s directions (as long as the choices are safe and nondestructive).
Your child may invite you to be part of the play. This is fantastic! You will follow your child’s directions as long as things stay safe and nondestructive. If your child directs you, you may take on a specific role directly (for example as a doctor or pirate) or through a toy (for example as a dinosaur or stuffed animal) and play the role the way you think your child wants you to play it. Don’t worry, your child will correct you if you get it wrong!
With child-directed play, it is important to remember not to take over the play activity. In child-directed play, you will not tell your child what to do or how to do it. Play the game or activity according to your child’s rules and directions (as long as things are safe and nondestructive).
In child-directed play, if your child does not invite you to be part of the play or to take on an imaginary role, you can still focus your attention on your child and describe out loud what is happening and identify any feelings coming up in your child directly or through the toys.
Using Parent-Directed Play Strategies
Parents may also choose to take on a more directive role in playtime with their children. You may want to prompt or encourage imaginary and creative play in your child. In child-directed play, you would let your child decide what to play with and how to play with it. In parent-directed play, you would provide some structure as to what the play involves. The goal is to get your child interested and engaged in the play activity, without you taking over the play entirely.
In child-directed play, you know to let your child take over the play activity and you will follow along as long as things stay safe and nondestructive. But in parent-directed play, you may decide to “jump in” and be more directive by:
- setting up a play activity or scenario
- adding something to the play to make it more fun or interesting,
- making the play easier or more challenging
- assisting or supporting your child with something
Ideally, after using parent-directed play strategies, your child will naturally start to engage in the play and begin to use his or her imaginative and creative skills. It is at this point that you would switch your role from directive to nondirective, or in other words you would switch from parent-directed play to child-directed play. This is a fantastic skill for parents to develop in order to encourage imaginative and creative play. That is, to be able to determine when your child is interested and engaged in the play and to know that this is the time to “back off” and let your child take over and play imaginatively and creatively.
It is important, especially with parent-directed play, not to take over the play activity. This can be very tricky to do! When you are encouraging imaginative and creative play, know that this is not the time to teach your child a specific skill. Teaching is best done at other times. To encourage imaginative and creative play, we want to allow children to make their own choices and decisions and to learn through natural consequences. Remember to keep in mind as well that you are not just trying to entertain your child, but rather you are engaging interactively together.
Imaginative and Creative Play Ideas
Here are just a few ideas to help you get going with creative and imaginative play. Remember you can use both child-directed and parent-directed play strategies. It is so important for parents to know when to “jump in” with parent-directed play strategies to engage their children in play and when to “back off” with child-directed play strategies to allow imaginative and creative play.
Create Your Own Town, Farm, Fort, Space Outpost, Fantasy Land
Set things up on the floor or a table. Use boxes, lego, or blocks for buildings or various structures. Find things to use for fences or barriers, mountains, caves or hiding places, water (blue fabric works well), trees and flowers. Use miniature people, animals, cars, trucks, vehicles, airplanes, boats, etc. These can be the settings for unlimited imaginative play scenarios involving various roles such as vulnerable people, dangerous situations (natural disasters) or people (attackers, bad guys, monsters, etc.) coming in from outside, protective and rescue people, mastermind strategists and planners, teams or groups working together cooperatively, etc.
Create Your Own House or School
Use boxes for the buildings. Use a felt pen to draw the rooms on the inside of the box. Parents can cut out windows and doors. Use lego, smaller boxes, or blocks for furniture. Use fabric scraps for carpets, blankets, curtains. Put a family in the house and some children and a teacher in the school. Make an outdoor playground. Create various play scenarios such as a normal day at home or school, conflict and resolution in the schoolyard, moving to a new home, etc. Again, these can be the settings for unlimited imaginative play scenarios involving various roles
Doctor’s Office, Dental Office, Hospital or Veterinary Clinic
Provide a play medical kit and real band-aids, masking tape (for casts), popsicle sticks (for splints), cotton puffs, and Kleenex. Towels and facecloths can be beds; laundry baskets can be animal cages. You, your child, or toys can take on various roles of patient, family member, nurse, doctor, etc. Find something to use (you can use a box) as a clinic, hospital, ambulance, x-ray machine, etc. Send patients home with a prescription or a note to come back for a check-up.
Dress up as king, queen, prince, princess, knight, wizard, witch, fairy, elves, dragons, etc. Fun props include foam swords, shields, magic wands, crowns, hats, capes, and jewelry. Or use small toy figures as the characters. Set up different spots for castles, caves, hiding places or dens. Or make a castle or fort out of a box.
Dress up as astronauts and aliens. Or use small astronaut and alien figures. Find something to be a space ship. Set up different space stations on friendly and hostile planets. Set up various missions: to explore new worlds, to protect a vulnerable colony from dangerous aliens, etc.
Set up items to sell. Use old wallets or purses. Use something for a cash register and make or buy play money. Write up bills and receipts on small pieces of paper. Customers can take items home and set them up at home.
Picnic, Dinner or Birthday Party
Invite stuffed animals, dolls, etc. Set up the place settings using plates, utensils, tablecloth, napkins, flowers. Use play food and empty food containers. Find something to use as a stove or oven. Use old kitchen spoons and a pot. Have something unexpected happen such as: a storm comes during the picnic, someone spills the food on the floor, someone unexpected comes for dinner, someone has a surprise party, etc.
Set up as above. Make up a menu. Use a small memo pad to take orders and to write bills for customers. Find something to use as a cash register and make or buy play money. Roles could be restaurant owner or chef, cashier, cranky customer, happy customer, clumsy waiter, clumsy or messy customer, etc.
Theatre Performance, Music Group or Orchestra
Set up a small theatre or stage using fabric pieces for curtains. Set up a play. Or, create an orchestra with musical instruments. Puppets, stuffed animals, parents or kids can be actors or players. Have an audience of people, animals or dolls. Sell tickets to the concert.
Make Up Your Own Games
Use items like foam (nerf) balls and a foam bat, indoor bowling set, ring toss, velcro darts, indoor basketball hoop for the back of the door, for example, and make up your own rules with these items. Be flexible and creative with the rules; rules can change and adapt as the play goes along. The idea is not to stick to one set of rules. Or provide a board game or set of cards and make up your own game.
Drawing, Craft and Expressive Activities
Please see the above section on Messy Play.
- Art Station: Determine where your art area will be and organize your art materials in this one place for easy access. Felt pens and crayons in one container. Glue, scissors, tape and miscellaneous other items in other containers. Have lots of sizes and colors of paper available. The easier it is to set up and clean up, the more useful this area will be.
- Sand Play: Half-fill a large container with clean play sand. Provide shovels, pails, sieves, turkey baster, cups and spoons. For more expressive play, provide a container of water that can be added to make the sand a moldable consistency. Limit the water so that the sand does not become flooded! Choose which toys are allowed in the water and wet sand.
- Water Play: Use a plastic container and half-fill with water. Provide soap, sponges, facecloths. Dolls can have baths; cars can get a car wash.
Remember: Supervision is important with messy play, especially with toddlers under 3 years old.
A suggestion for you:
- Choose a time that is convenient for you and your child where you can be one-to-one with your child for 30 minutes without outside distractions.
- Take your child to a safe and child-friendly play area where there are a variety of toys (ideally from the different categories outlined above) available to your child.
- Use child-directed and parent-directed play strategies to encourage your child to engage in imaginative or creative play. Remember to use parent-directed play strategies only as necessary to get your child engaged in imaginative and creative play, and then return to child-directed play strategies to allow your child to fully engage in his or her own imaginative and creative play.
- Have fun and enjoy each other’s company! Set limits for unsafe or destructive behaviors only. Remember, this is not a time for teaching or correcting your child.
- Schedule another 30-minute one-to-one playtime for some time next week (or sooner if you want!).
Here’s something really interesting and encouraging:
Research tells us there are many benefits for both parent and child if parents can have a 30-minute one-to-one playtime that includes lots of child-directed play once per week! This is not a huge time commitment for something with such enormous benefits.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2021.
This article has been revised from my earlier article published in 2008.
Please feel free to pass on this article to anyone you think might find it useful.