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Why Your Child Is Obsessed With Imaginary Play

Sophie Pickles

Written by Sophie Pickles

6 min read

Little boy playing with his bear - imaginary play

My three year old has just begun his journey into the world of imaginary play and I love it!

It’s both hilarious and fascinating in equal measure and has ramped up the interest level of playtime threefold.

The moment I sit down, my legs instantly become a road for a car or a playground slide. The kitchen cupboard has been acquisitioned as ‘the shop’ and the long-suffering cats have been adopted as unwilling playmates. Ever tried to stick a plastic thermometer in a cat’s mouth? I wouldn’t advise it unless you’re looking for real-life wounds to dress.

What Is Imaginary Play?

Imaginary or imaginative play happens when children act out or role play experiences. These are often reenactments of real-life situations but imaginary play can easily straddle the line between fantasy and reality.

It may appear like there isn’t much depth or learning to play like this but in actuality, it’s one of the richest and most complex forms of play that children can engage in. From learning maths concepts to developing language skills and learning to problem solve - it’s all part of the wonder of imaginary play.

There are easy ways to tap into this world of imagination, both to build stronger bonds between you and your child, and also to skyrocket their learning and development.

The Benefits Of Imaginary Play

Little girl playing with her doll- imaginary play

Children will naturally engage in imaginative role-play - it’s how they figure out the world around them. From pretending to be a superhero and ‘fighting’ to gently rocking a doll to sleep, it’s all a natural and normal part of childhood play.

There are so many benefits to allowing and encouraging your child to play in this way:

  • It provides children with the opportunity to identify with real-world experiences and make sense of things they have seen.
  • It allows children to explore and express their interests.
  • It encourages problem solving, critical thinking and creativity.
  • It helps children to develop maths, language, physical and social skills.
  • It gives children an outlet for anxiety and helps them to relax and decompress.

How To Encourage Imaginary Play At Home

Little girl putting a crown on her teddy

We all know the old adage that children prefer to play with the box the toy comes in rather than the toy itself. Well, when it comes to role-playing, empty cardboard boxes can provide the perfect props for play. Their open-ended nature means that they can become absolutely anything, from a post box to a cot for a baby.

Saving your empty cardboard boxes and recycling is the ideal way to start your own role-play area at home. In addition to recyclables, try giving your child fabric with which to create their own fancy dress costumes. There’s nothing wrong with shop bought costumes if you already have them, but there really is nothing quite like allowing your child’s imagination to run wild as they create their own outfits.

Search through your old scarf collection (I know you have one!), gather old table cloths or fabric scraps, and collect bangles, necklaces, bags and other accessories to create the ultimate imaginary play wardrobe! Think in an open-ended way: a red scarf could become an outfit for a firefighter, a cape for Red Riding Hood, the table cloth at a café or a blanket for a baby.

Other toys and items you might like to collect are:

  • Cuddly toys and puppets
  • Figurines (people, animals, dinosaurs, fairies)
  • Vehicles
  • Coins
  • Play food
  • Dolls and accessories
  • Utensils and containers (bowls, spoons, pots and lidded boxes)

Tailor your collection to your child’s interests while trying to add in a few new or unexpected items too. Don’t be swayed by stereotypical gender play - boys and girls will both take pleasure in taking on many different roles as part of their play.

Storing these play items in individual baskets or boxes will not only keep your home looking more tidy after bedtime but will also encourage independence and make it much easier for your child to become involved in clean-up too. After all, when everything has a place, it’s much easier to find it and then put it away again!

Little girl having a tea party

How To Join In With The Play

Putting your phone away and spending 10 minutes a day of uninterrupted play time with your child can have unrivalled benefits: from forging stronger parent-child bonds, to improving speech and language and helping to beat anxiety. Here are my top tips for getting the most out of playing together:

  1. Let your child lead the play. Letting your child choose how they would like to play and what they want to play with will not only keep them engaged for longer but will make them feel valued and important.

  2. Narrate as you play. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking we need to ask questions in order to ramp up learning opportunities. Have you ever found yourself asking “What colour is it?”, “What noise does that make?”, or “How many have you got?”

    We’ve all done it but the real (and more importantly, fun) way to encourage learning, is to narrate as you play. Think of yourself as a sports commentator and talk about what you can see:

  3. Be a copycat! Allow yourself to embrace your inner child and copy the way your preschooler plays and interacts. Pick up the same toy and copy your child’s mannerisms and the words or sounds they use. This can take some getting used to and you might feel a little bit silly at first, but they will absolutely love you for it!

    Not only will it create stronger bonds between you but you can use this way of playing to model new vocabulary or mannerisms you would like your child to learn. For example: "You’re going to put your car into the car park. There are so many spaces to choose from!" or:"I think I’m going to park my car over here next to this big red truck.”

This not only shows your child that you are interested in what they are doing, but by talking about what you can see and narrating what you are doing, your child is more likely to join you in conversation.

Little girl playing with her rabbit - imaginary play

Armed with the knowledge that imaginary play is the cream of the developmental play crop, I will be embracing my son’s new found love of role-play with open arms - I might just have to start hiding the thermometer when the cats are around!

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