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Imaginative Play is Your Child’s Most Important Endeavor

Most parents know that their children enjoy playing pretend. But did you know that imaginative play is more than just fun? It is helping your child’s brain develop to its full potential.

Do you know what authors L. Frank Baum (The Wizard of Oz) and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) had in common with several Nobel Prize winners? As children, they frequently played “pretend” and made-up imaginary worlds. “Imaginative play” is a bit of a buzzword right now in pre-Kindergarten and early elementary circles. Here’s why.

Being able to imagine means being able to see the world not as it is, but as it could be.

Call it Magic

Did you know that when your children are pretending to be tigers, superheroes, or astronauts, they are actually developing a part of their brain that will help them be better scientists, writers, or engineers? It’s true. Think for a second about the word “creativity.” Often, this is a trait that we ascribe to the artists and musicians of the world. But in reality, people in all fields of study rely on the creative centers of their brain in order to be innovators.

In “The Importance of Imaginative Play,” Dr. Gail Gross states, “This is the magical thinking of childhood that helps the brain develop creativity. This creativity, if allowed to blossom, is the same creativity that helps the scientist discover new cures for diseases, companies to come up with the next technological advances and inventions, and leaders to move their countries into peace.” Notice how she describes the child’s mind as “magical.” Being able to imagine means being able to see the world not as it is, but as it could be. “If dragons were real…” “If we could fly…” We need adults who are able to ask the “what ifs” in this world and science is telling us that this is a skill we learn during childhood.

Call it Science

When it comes to both parenting and teaching, there are several issues that boil down to a matter of opinion. The importance of imaginative play in childhood is not one of those issues. Psychology Today summarizes several scientific studies that document the benefits of children’s engagement in imaginative play or pretending games. These are just a few of the benefits of imaginative play:

Scientifically Supported Benefits of Imaginative Play

Reduced aggression

Increased ability to control behavior

Better problem solving skills

Better ability to express both positive and negative emotions

Higher ability in language usage

An awareness of different perspectives

Ability to integrate emotions into thinking

Ability to delay gratification

Increase in civility

Increase in empathy

And then there is this: “An important benefit of early pretend play may be its enhancement of the child’s capacity for cognitive flexibility and, ultimately, creativity… [studies found] that early imaginative play was associated with increased creative performance years later. Root-Bernstein’s research with clearly creative individuals such as Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant awardees, indicated that early childhood games about make-believe worlds were more frequent in such individuals than in control participants in their fields.” Wow. Let that sink in for a second. Play really is the “work” of childhood. It is building our children’s brains in ways other activities simply cannot.  


How to Help

Here are some ways that are proven to foster creative and imaginative play in children (Resources are linked at the bottom.)

  1. Talk to your kids about nature. Get outside and have a conversation about what you find and experience.
  2. Talk to your kids about social issues.
  3. Read books together and have conversations about them.
  4. Make up bedtime stories.
  5. Never embarrass your child for using his imagination.
  6. Allow kids to use household items in play (pot, pans, blankets, wooden spoons, etc.).
  7. Don’t overschedule your child’s time.

Also, check out this article about how having boundaries for screen time encourages creative play.

Play time is not wasted time. It is not time that could be better spent. Playing is learning in children. So go ahead and build that blanket fort, invite that friend over to play Barbies, or let that boy wear his blanket cape. It may be just the thing to lead your child on to future success.

More Resources:

“The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development,”  Psychology Today

“The Importance of Imaginative Play,” Huffington Post

“L. Frank Baum-The Man Behind The Curtain” Smithsonian Magazine

Tools for Imaginative Play

My Very Own House

Pretend Play Doctor Set

Picnik Duo Kitchen

Castles, Knights, and Princesses Best Sellers

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