Imagination is more important than knowledge generally. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand. Albert Einstein
“Okay, I’ll be the ballerina, you be the astronaut, and we’ll have our tea party with the blue princess in that jungle cave.”
Take a few minutes to watch your kid at play and it’s easy to see that they live in a different world to most of us. Kids inhabit a magical realm, overflowing with wonder, whimsy, and endless possibility.
A laundry basket becomes a boat, a stick morphs into a magic wand, and a cardboard box is the launch pad for deep space exploration. Even friends and companions can be conjured out of thin air or brought to life from inanimate objects.
From about the time babies begin to walk and talk, they also begin to pretend. You’ll notice them giving a favourite stuffed toy a sip of drink or tucking a dolly under a blanket. Around two years of age, pretend play starts to get serious as kids learn that one thing can symbolise another and they take on roles of different people. The years from three to six are the wonder years of imaginative play – at no other time in your kid’s life will they be so immersed in a wonderful world of their own creation.
But is pretend play just fleeting flights of fancy in a world of make believe, or does it have deeper implications for child development?
There have been a lot of studies over the decades on how pretend play contributes to cognitive, social and academic competence. While psychologists and child development experts don’t yet fully understand the degree of impact, there’s consensus that make believe is a vital part of learning.
Kids aren’t just sillying it up in a fantasy world. Pretend play offers a chance to practice social situations, act out adult roles, and even understand fears and anxiety. The process of pretending builds skills in many essential areas. Here are a few:
Pretend play requires kids put themselves (sometimes literally) in other people’s shoes – to imagine how a baby might be tired, an explorer excited, a fairy princess scared, or a parent cross. Awareness starts to develop that their own thoughts may differ from others and that there are a variety of perspectives of which each of us is capable.
Cooperation & compromise
Pretend play teaches us community too – how to share, take turns and listen to each other. When children play together creatively, they naturally collaborate and negotiate: “I’m going to fly the plane.” “No. It’s your turn to read the map today, you were the pilot last time.”
Whether playing alone, with a parent or other kids, make believe goes hand in hand with a great deal of chatter! Kids start to learn the power and importance of good communication and can practice what they’ve learnt in a rule free environment. It can also bring out expressive language not used in everyday ‘real’ life.
Adults can get involved by using more descriptive language to paraphrase what the kids say – a great chance to introduce subjunctives, futures tenses and adjectives!
Courage to face fears
Toddler years can be troubled with fears and pretend play is a safe way for kids to work out their feelings and come to terms with their fears. For instance if your kid is anxious about an upcoming trip to the dentist, read a book or two about teeth and then role play what the dentist will do, taking turns to be the patient.
Problem solving skills
Pretend play can be looked at as a series of problem solving activities. Whether it’s working out who gets to wear the fancy hat, where to attach the roof for the fort, or figuring out if there are enough cups for the soft toy tea party. Our pint sized problem solvers are developing essential skills that they’ll use for the rest of their lives.
Nurturing the imagination
It goes without saying that pretend play gives kids a chance to envisage new scenarios, come up with new ideas, and generally grow the imagination. And we all know that this isn’t just important in childhood, its essential for a fulfilled adult life too. Creativity and imagination brings us our favourite books and films, technological gadgets and medical discoveries.
14 easy ways to flex the muscle of imagination
As adults we play an important role in encouraging pretend play and creating an environment to stimulate and guide it. Here are 14 easy ideas on how to do this…
One: be inspirational
Make sure your kids have plenty of rich, real world experiences to inspire positive pretend play. Research shows that parents who regularly talk to their children about nature and social issues, or who tell stories at bedtime seem to be most likely to foster pretend play.
Two: give kids space
Let kids own a safe space to create their imaginary worlds. It could be a bit of clear floor, a space under a table, a stretch of rug, their own teepee – anywhere really that the kids can claim as their own domain and form an early sense of independence.
Three: put things within reach
Make sure that any props, materials and toys are stored in a visible place that is readily accessible and within reach.
Four: create a box of props
Create a store of props, a collection of odds and ends such as pebbles, bottle tops, pipe cleaners, pine cones, string, scraps of fabric, shells, buttons and the like. Its good to include a mixture of realistic things plus materials without a clear function that can be reinvented into something extraordinary.
Five: encourage dress ups
Create a dressing up cache. Fill a box, bin or bag with a variety of old clothing and fun props – shoes, hats, purses, ears, tutus, swords, masks, tails, whatever you have to hand or tickles your tots fancy.
Six: themed prop collections
Collect a few theme appropriate materials such as postcards, old boarding passes, foreign coins, bag and sun hat for a pretend summer holiday.
Seven: soft toys, dollies and miniatures
Have a variety of miniature figures and soft toys within reach. You’ll soon get to know their characters, personalities and mischievous streaks!
Eight: building blocks
Encourage play with building blocks or ‘Lego’ type toys. There is no right or wrong way to play with these and they can be used in endless forms, for endless purposes – to create a wall, a tower, a house, a shop counter, a castle, a machine…
Nine: play dough
Make some play dough. It’s great for moulding into pretend food such as pizzas and cup cakes, and for creating imaginary monsters (who can then eat the pizza).
Ten: cardboard boxes
Give your kid a cardboard box and before long they’ll be telling you “it’s not a box, it’s a…” boat, plane, rocket, castle, cave, or whatever else has stoked the imagination that particular day. Stockpile used cereal boxes and toilet paper tubes for older kids – they’re fabulous for creating the tools of adventure.
Allow your little one to mimic your behavior and join in the cleaning or whatever they see you doing. It’s not such a bad thing to have a small pair of helping hands around the place, is it.
Twelve: kitchen toys
Have a supply of kitchen and household items (toy or real) that kids can use to rehearse the roles of adult life. Think measuring cups, wooden spoons, cups and saucers, bowls and containers. Essential for making you ‘dinner’ or hosting a fabulous fairy tea party.
Lead by example – become more playful, dance, sing, pretend to be an animal or a ballerina, make story time as animated as you can, and have lots of fun doing it.
Fourteen: take a back seat
Take the lead from your kid, providing supervision and encouragement without control, and avoid the temptation to correct what you think is ‘wrong’. Empower your kid by letting them make (and break) their own rules.
Pop into the store or browse our website if you’re looking for further inspiration. Our shelves are stacked with toys designed to feed the imagination.