What is imaginative play? Why is it important? And how can you unlock its teaching power?
Find out about what clinical psychologist Rachael Tan has to say about the benefits of imaginative play.
My 4-year-old boy has a magical imagination. He talks of sparkly blue dragons, hippos that transport people and dinosaurs that live in volcanoes.
When his best friend and neighbour – a 5-year-old-girl – comes to play with him, it’s a delight to see them play together. Much of their play is based on imagination.
Their favourite game is “Mummy and Daddy”. They role-play everything from going to work to cooking, and putting Barbie “baby” to bed!
I’m sure all you parents with young kids are very familiar with this kind of play – whether it’s your little girl playing in her make-believe kingdom, or your little boy pretending to be an astronaut.
This kind of play where kids use their imagination is called imaginative play, and is a wonderful thing that’s as old as the hills. Thankfully, it still exists in this high-tech age of electronic gadgets.
Have you ever wondered exactly what imaginative play is and why it’s important for kids?
We asked Rachael K. Tan, an endorsed clinical psychologist with the Psychology Board of Australia, some questions about imaginative play.
What is imaginative play?
Imaginative play happens when children take on roles and experiences they might have had or are of interest to them during solitary play or play with others.
For example, your little girl might use a band-aid to fix her doll after she falls down the stairs, or your little boy might stick a patch over his eye and fight his father with a ruler on a ship made of pillows!
Why is imaginative play important?
– It fosters creativity: Imaginative play provides a safe space for children to act out whatever they like, including situations 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 supports physical development in a fun way: When a little girl tries to fit Barbie’s arms through the arm-holes of her mini jacket, she is getting good practice in hand-eye coordination, while learning to move and control her fingers in different ways.
– It helps 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 brings up situations where 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 lets adults teach positive behaviour to their kids: Parents can introduce make-believe situations into play to create “incidental learning” opportunities.
For example, when your child is giving her doll a shower, the parent can use questions (What happens next?), comments (That water is nice and warm!) and dilemmas (Oh no, Dolly ran out of soap!) These teach the child important functional skills and to work through tricky situations with guidance.
How can parents encourage kids to participate 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.
Why is imaginative play even more important in today’s digital age?
These days, it’s hard to spot a kid who doesn’t have an electronic tablet or other electronic gadget. However, play with these gadgets is predominantly a solitary activity.
Because of this, parents need to ensure that their children do not miss out on the direct human interactions essential for their social, cognitive and emotional development.
They can do this by limiting their kids’ use of electronic devices and providing plenty of opportunities for imaginative play and socialisation with other children.
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 as well to engage that item in play, like having your child’s doll give her 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 himself 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.
For more about Rachael Tan and her practice, click here.
How does your child engage in imaginative play? Share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment.
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