It’s no secret young children have vivid imaginations. Many children express themselves and keep themselves entertained for hours by playing pretend. However, imaginative play is more than just a fun way for kids to spend their time.

Any type of role-playing or make-believe that a child engages in can have a profound effect on how they see the world, how they adapt to change, how they get along with peers, and how they learn. Among parents and caregivers, the value of imaginative play is sometimes downplayed, but it is critical in helping children navigate the world around them. Here, we’ll discuss some ways Little Sunshine’s educators encourage imaginative play in their classrooms, as well as the science behind the connection to education.

Why Is Imagination Important?

Imagination is important because young children learn by acting out scenarios. Using an open-ended object to represent something else—for example, pretending a cardboard box is a racecar—is a skill that helps young children gain perspective and encourages creativity, which is essential to their development. According to the director of The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology, Sally Goddard Blythe, when children are allowed to play and pretend regularly without inhibition, they can further tap into their creativity. This allows them to foster a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them.

Another way imaginative play encourages self-knowledge is that it allows children to effectively deal with their emotions and feelings. Research has continually demonstrated imaginative play is essential for social skills and emotional intelligence, which are of course critical throughout life. Cooperation, empathy, and self-expression are all hugely important, and preschoolers who regularly engage in imaginative play strengthen these skills.

child playing with toys

Imaginative Play Builds Skills

Aside from the emotional side of things, imaginative play also builds critical skills that will assist children in excelling during their academic careers and beyond. When children engage in dramatic or pretend play, they are essentially testing various life roles. For example, imaginative play is effective in developing language skills. Children often create dialogue as they act out various scenarios, and this helps them develop linguistic and conversational skills that will serve them well in both social and academic settings. Preschoolers often mimic the words of those around them, including teachers and parents, and imitating adult conversations leads them to use words that they would not otherwise be exposed to in an educational setting.

Pretend play can also improve memorization skills, as children often create theatrical scenarios that they repeat time and again—a sort of informal childhood equivalent to learning lines for a real theatrical performance.

Other important skills that are developed from imaginative play include:

  • Critical Thinking Skills: Imaginative play hones problem-solving skills among groups of children. For example, when two children would like to play the same role in an imaginative play scenario or find themselves in another disagreement, they engage cognitive thinking skills to work out a solution to the problem.
  • Self-Regulation Skills: Some imaginative play can get physical (for example, pretend fights), and many parents worry that this roughhousing is detrimental. However, research has shown that monitored physical play actually helps children learn the importance of self-regulation and respecting other people’s boundaries. It helps them understand the difference between what is considered appropriate physical play and what is not.
  • Synthetization of Skills: We humans learn through a variety of experiences and lessons, and imaginative play gives kids an opportunity to use their knowledge and skills gained from other activities to role play.

How Can Parents Encourage Imaginative Play?

Now that you know how important imaginative play is, the main question is: how can you encourage it?

One of the ways Little Sunshine’s encourages imaginative play is to provide a space dedicated to it. At home, this space can be an entire playroom or even just a small space within a larger room, but the key is to carve out an area specifically for little ones to let their imaginations run wild.

Stock the space with items your children can use to play make-believe, such as shoes, clothes, and accessories like neckties, scarves, and hats, as well as props like child-safe furniture or plastic dishes. Sofa, chairs, and other furniture can be used as props; lots of kids can spend hours in a make-believe tunnel or cave created with a table, chairs, and some old sheets. Feel free to regularly rotate the props to keep things interesting and keep children engaged long-term. Don’t feel like you have to go out and buy anything, either; sometimes, even a cardboard box and some crayons are enough to create a spaceship, a house, or whatever else your child can imagine.

Imaginative play allows children to role-play real-life situations and develop critical skills, but it also allows them to simply enjoy unstructured, no-rules fun and freedom. Use some of the tips here to encourage imaginative play—and even get in on the fun!