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The importance of imaginative play

Blog thumbnail image - Rachael TanWritten by Therapy Focus Behaviour Support Team (BeST) Clinician (Clinical Psychologist) Rachael Tan.

Kids play make-believe because it’s fun, but did you know it is also a vital component of normal child development and should be encouraged?

What is imaginative play?
Imaginative play, or make believe as it is sometimes referred to, occurs when a child role plays experiences that are of interest to them, such as playing ‘school’ with their toys. Children may engage in imaginative play alone or with others. There are a number of benefits that imaginative play contributes to a child’s development.

The benefits of imaginative play:

  • It fosters creativity by providing a safe space for children to act out scenarios of their choosing, including situations that they may not be able to experience in real life. For example, a 5-year-old who is unable to go to a restaurant without her parents can, through imaginative play with her friend, create a pretend tea party they can both enjoy at home.
  • It promotes physical development in a fun way. Activities such as fitting doll’s arms through the sleeves of her jacket are great for hand-eye coordination, as is learning to move and control her hands in different ways.
  • It provides an opportunity for kids to practice and develop their language and social skills simply by being with and talking to other children.
  • It boosts development of problem solving and self-regulation skills. Imaginative play with peers can create situations in which not everyone gets what they want. For example, when more than one child wants to be King of the castle, the child who doesn’t get what he wants needs to learn how to manage unpleasant emotions in order for play to continue.
  • It gives parents a fun way to teach positive behaviour to their kids. Parents can introduce situations into play to create “incidental learning” opportunities. For example, when giving their doll a shower, the parent might ask the child questions (e.g. “what happens next?”), make comments (“the water is nice and warm”), and discuss dilemmas (“Oh no, Dolly ran out of soap!”). These teach the child important functional skills and the ability to work through tricky situations with guidance.

Tips to encourage imaginative play:
Because imaginative play is such a healthy contributor to a child’s overall development, parents should actively encourage their child when they engage in imaginative play.

  • Provide plenty of props, play partners (both similar-aged peers as well as adults) and play time.
  • Dress-up parties are also a great way to both promote imaginary play and keep children entertained!
  • Involve them in your daily chores and incorporate incidental learning into these situations. For example, while you are preparing dinner, you might invite your child to cook alongside you with their play items.

What’s the right age to introduce imaginative play to a child?
There is no set age to introduce imaginative play into a child’s world. You can start by introducing simple items that are safe for the child, such as a soft toy. Create situations to engage that item in play, like having your child’s doll give them a kiss on the cheek.

Are there any disadvantages to imaginative play?
Absolutely none! But, if a child often behaves in a way during play that causes harm either to themselves or others, or if a child develops a strong preference for solitary imaginary play at the expense of social play, it may be worth seeking the advice of a qualified child development professional.

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