by Kathy Eugster
Imaginary, pretend, or make-believe, play is a kind of play that most children love to engage in. With this kind of play, children are using their imaginations to create not only realistic, but also fantastical representations of real life. Children learn about the real world by playing out situations and themes both realistically and symbolically with toys and other play materials. Child development experts agree that imaginary play is important for healthy child development in so many ways.
Parents may wonder if they should get involved in their children’s imaginary play. This is a great question, because children definitely need time and space on their own to use their imaginations to develop stories and ideas in playtime. Children will frequently take advantage of unstructured free playtime to develop creative imaginary play scenarios. This is necessary for healthy child development.
However, parents can, and should, become involved in their children’s imaginary play at times because this is an excellent way to strengthen the parent-child relationship. When parents join in their children’s imaginary play, they are entering their child’s special world. When this happens, children are able to observe their parents from a completely different, and refreshing, perspective. And the good news is that you can do this in a short period of time!
I like to think that you can join in your child’s imaginary play in two different ways:
- In a child-directed way where you are in a Nondirective Role and wait for your child to invite you to join in the imaginary play and then follow your child’s directions
- In a parent-directed way where you are in a Directive Role and facilitate the imaginary play by structuring some aspect of the play
Let’s compare the two different styles.
Here is an example of what 10 minutes of Child-Directed Imaginary Playtime might look like:
- Your child is playing with her dragons and says to you, “Dad, you be the purple dragon.”
- This is your cue to take on the role of the purple dragon, so you take hold of this dragon and move it to where your child is.
- Your child takes hold of the green dragon as her character and starts to tell you the plot of the story by saying, “The dragons have to find a new home. Let’s go.” She then directs you to follow her dragon to a spot under the table.
- You take hold of your dragon and follow your child’s dragon under the table. You wait to see how the story unfolds.
- Your child says, “Now we have to build a wall” and she starts to bring over some pillows and piles them up in front of the desk.
- Your dragon and her dragon are still under the desk as she builds the wall. You wait to see what happens next.
- Your child is satisfied with the wall and says, “Now the dragons need a bed.” She brings over the Lego and starts to build a bed and says to you, “You build a bed for your dragon.”
- You follow the directions and proceed to put some Lego blocks together to make a bed for your dragon.
- As you are doing this, your child corrects you and says, “No, don’t use any blue blocks,” so you remove the blue block from the bed you are making and continue building.
- Your child then moves the pillows out of the way and puts her bed under the desk and her dragon on the bed and tells you to do the same.
- You proceed to do what she has told you.
- She then replaces the pillows in front of the desk. What a great start to a fun play scenario that you can continue with your child another time!
Here is an example of what 10 minutes of Parent-Directed Imaginary Playtime might look like:
- You initiate an imaginary play scenario by saying, “Let’s play with your dragons today. Which one should I be and which one should you be?”
- Your child chooses the purple dragon for you and the green dragon for him.
- You take hold of the purple dragon and begin to structure the plot by saying, “Okay, today, the dragons need to find a new home.” Then you take your dragon and move it under the desk and say, “Here’s our new home. This looks nice and cozy! Come over here with me, Green Dragon.”
- Ideally, your child will follow your directions and move his dragon to where you indicate.
- You elaborate the plot by saying, “Hmm, we don’t want anybody else to come into our new house so we need to build a wall. I’ve got it! Let’s use these pillows to build a wall!” Then you start to bring over some pillows to pile up in front of the desk.
- Ideally your child will engage in the play and will bring pillows over as well.
- After the wall is built, you say, “Okay, now we need to make some beds so we can go to sleep.” You then get some Lego and start putting together a bed for your dragon. Ideally, your child will build his dragon a bed as well.
- You move some of the pillows out of the way and put your bed under the table and your dragon on top of the bed. Your child seems hesitant, so you direct him by giving a voice to your dragon and saying, “Come on in Green Dragon. Put your bed here. It’s time for bed now. I’m so tired!”
- Ideally, your child will follow your directions and put his dragon to bed under the table beside your dragon.
- You then replace the pillows in front of the desk. This is a great start to a fun play scenario that you and your child can continue another time!
Tips for Child-Directed Imaginary Playtime
- Put yourself into a Nondirective Role.
- Wait for your child to invite you to join her in imaginary play.
- Follow your child’s directions on how she wants you to play.
- Play the way you think your child would want you to play. Your child will correct you if you are wrong, so just follow the directions.
- Stay in a Nondirective Role; that means you are not adding or changing anything to the imaginary story. Your child is the director of the story. Also, no questions to your child, other than if you are unsure of what to do, you can ask a brief question to get clarification.
- Let your child direct how the story unfolds, even if the themes seem uncomfortable or difficult.
- If your child starts to engage in unsafe or destructive behaviors or tells you to engage in unsafe or destructive behaviors, switch into a Directive Role and limit these behaviors and re-direct to an appropriate behavior, then switch back to a Nondirective Role.
Tips for Parent-Directed Imaginary Playtime
- Put yourself into a Directive Role.
- Initiate a specific imaginary play scenario by making suggestions, providing specific toys and props, and setting things up.
- Or, “jump in” to an imaginary play scenario that your child is already engaged in.
- Structure the imaginary play in a way to meet your child’s needs, for example by:
- initiating or elaborating a particular play theme
- identifying or changing the plot
- introducing various characters
- role-modeling behaviors
- inserting a moral or lesson into the story
- providing a positive ending to the story
- Keep in mind that you can always “back off” to a Nondirective Role at any point and let your child have some say in how the story unfolds.
- If your child starts to engage in unsafe or destructive behaviors or tells you to engage in unsafe or destructive behaviors, limit these behaviors and re-direct to an appropriate behavior.
Here are some questions to consider:
- Which style of imaginary play did your child enjoy the most?
- Which style of imaginary play did you enjoy the most?
- Were you able to switch between child-directed and parent-directed styles within one playtime?
I LOVE engaging in imaginary play! With this type of play there are so many opportunities to connect with each other and to just enjoy each other’s company.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2022.
Please feel free to pass on this article to anyone you think might find it useful.