Sam Flatman, an Educational Consultant for Pentagon Play, discusses why imaginative play is an essential part of childhood and what parents can do to encourage it.
Do you find your toddler wanting to play at being a cook in the kitchen or acting as a mummy to their dolls? Pretend play is an essential part of childhood, helping children to learn how to interact with the world around them and preparing them for later life. While pretend play might seem a bit strange to us parents, mimicking everyday actions is a learning process for our little ones; they’re able to explore social roles, cultural norms and complex emotions in a safe and comfortable environment. The best thing we can do for our children is to encourage pretend play and nurture their imaginations.
It’s likely that the first sign of your toddler’s imagination will be through pretend play. Make believe games might come in the form of playing with finger puppets, pretending to be someone else, acting the role of their favourite animal or even creating little worlds with small toy people and cars. Pretend play has many benefits, including the growth of intellectual and creative thinking, as well as social and emotional understanding.
As your toddler grows up, you may find that they acquire an imaginary friend. For many toddlers this is an essential part of social development and provides them with a safe opportunity for social interaction where, for a change, they are the one in charge. Imaginary friends can come in many different forms, perhaps as other children, younger relations or even pets. Imaginary pals are a natural developmental phase for many children and not something that parents should worry about.
As a child’s creative side develops, they may progress away from play-acting realistic scenes and stories that they have experienced to a more exciting world of fantasy, believing that they can cast spells, capture the moon or stop doors from closing with their magical powers. Magical thinking provides children with a chance to control their own world and explore their imaginations.
Support Your Child
As your little one begins to develop their imagination, be sure to support and encourage them. Remember that while it’s great to join in with pretend play and interact with their imaginative worlds, you should be taking a backseat where possible so as to allow their ideas to come forward. It’s important for young children to be in control of their pretend play, and the learning gained from it, so that they can explore and understand concepts at their own pace.
Playing classical music and reading bedtime stories to your children are two very good ways to help their imaginations grow. Babies really enjoy hearing sounds, especially their parent’s voice reading aloud, so you can start this as soon as they’re born. For toddlers, opt for picture books because they’re a great way to get your little ones talking about what they think may be happening in the illustrations - don’t forget to vary the kinds of stories that you read to encourage different ideas each time.
Introduce painting (finger painting works well for toddlers) and drawing activities as soon as children become more capable so that they can begin to show you their imaginary worlds. Many children will try to draw their environment: their home, family, pets, garden and so on, which will often be incomprehensible to us, but meaningful to them. As your toddler starts speaking, encourage them to share what they have drawn with you, remembering to always show your enthusiasm for their creations.
Play is an essential part of growth, for the body, the brain and the imagination. Providing your child with both space and your ongoing support will see their creative side flourish.