The Importance of Imaginary Play in Child Development

imaginary play

Things are pretty quiet in the other room and you begin to wonder what your child is up to. You sneak a peak around the corner and observe her sitting with a stuffed bunny delicately wrapping its ear with a napkin. You continue to watch as she gently places the wounded stuffed bunny on a blanket and pretends makes a nice pot of hot tea to share. You may think it is just fun and games, but your child is learning through that imaginary play, expanding her vocabulary, and encouraging brain development.

Imaginary Play and Learning

The understanding that playing expands learning and child development is an essential step in helping a child become the best she can be. The concept of play has been around for centuries, with play artifacts dating back to Ancient Egypt, more than 3000 years ago. The found crude dolls, balls, game pieces, and carved animals prove that kids are kids – no matter what time period, or location, they are from. All children are intrinsically drawn to play and learn through the experience.

They contain an internal motivation to try new things and copy behaviors of others. A child’s development is enhanced when she is encouraged to explore these new skills through play and rewarded internally through feeling a sense of accomplishment, which inspires further positive learning and behaviors.

While a child is exploring through imaginary play, she is figuring out how things work and learning more about problem solving. Along with imaginary play, a child also experiments with imitative play, or copying the behaviors of others. Through imaginary and imitative play, a child is able to hone important life skills that cannot be taught through flashcards or academic drills. It also encourages the brain to think in new and interesting ways.

Development of Imaginary Play

A child’s first foray into imaginary play is often very repetitive. Around 18 to 20-months of age, she may discover that moving a small plastic animal from one place to another internally motivates her to say the name of the animal and then make a realistic representational noise for the animal. This may not seem like anything amazing to adults, but for the child, her brain development is being heightened through her ability to use her fine-motor skills to grasp and move the toy, her learning connection of knowing the proper name of the animal, and the language skills to make the correct animal noise.

As a child develops, her imaginary play becomes more experimental, and through the learning she obtains from imaginary and imitative play, she is expanding her knowledge of her limitations and abilities. Providing a child with basic props – even a large cardboard box – is a great way to encourage learning and development. Along with imaginary play becoming more complex around the age of three, it also becomes more interactive. This is an awesome opportunity to engage in pretend play with a child and learn more about her learning style.

All children develop and evolve at their own pace. If your child has not hit a developmental milestone at a time you feel is appropriate, do not assert pressure on the child to perform. A child will begin her experimentation with imaginary play when she is ready. If you feel there may be something hindering your child’s development, contact your family physician.

Ways to Encourage Imaginary Play

Encouraging imaginary play is as easy as getting down to the same level as the child. There are three simple ways imaginary play and child development can be encouraged in the home:

1. Create a space. Turn that unused corner of the kitchen or barely used guest room into an imaginary play panacea. Creating a dedicated pretend play spot allows the child to have a play place that will always be there when she is ready. Clearly define the location and remove any items that may interfere with the child’s play or cause concern, such as breakables. As an adult, create a balance between useable space for the home and space for the child while enjoying imaginary play. Placing a dedicated pretend play space next to the china cabinet might not be a successful experience for child or adult.

2. Create time. Our lives are busy, and often the television is turned on or a video game is played for entertainment. Instead of relying on electronics, turn everything off, which encourages the child, and yourself, to enjoy some pretend play. When a child feels motivated to turn to imaginary play instead of the television or a video game, she is motivating her brain and boosting her learning skills. Open-ended play builds a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Just a few of the skills built though executive functions include listening, waiting, self-control, self-motivation, and cognitive flexibility. And, for adults, taking the time to play encourages healthy bonding between a child and an adult, lowers stress, and is plain fun!

3. Provide props. Before heading to the store for the latest and greatest pretend play toys, take a look around the home. Items that may not seem exiting to an adult could turn into an amazing spaceship or antennae for a creative costume. Before tossing out that packing box, why not paint the outside with the child and construct a castle? Bits of fabric can be turned into colorful capes, and paper bags can amazingly be transformed into hats or jackets with some simple cuts and the help of masking tape.

Imaginary play is not only fun, it enhances a child’s development and learning in amazing ways. And, you might find yourself having an enjoyable time, too!