Supporting Your Child’s Imagination

Imagination is more important than knowledge generally. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” – Albert Einstein


The imagination of a child is a beautiful thing. While there is no set-in-stone age when a child’s imagination begins to unfold, typically imaginative play begins around the age of 2 and really blossoms at age 3.

Play in general is a child’s way of engaging and making sense of the world. It is extremely important that children engage in meaningful play daily. While all play is important, imaginative play is a vital part of a child’s development.  Sadly, adults often under-value imaginative play.  

Imaginative play is essentially when children are role playing and are acting out various experiences they may have had or something that is of some interest to them.  By inventing scenarios and characters, children develop their ability to think and to maintain mental patterns and images.

Children learn from experience – from what happens around them, from what they see, hear, smell, taste and touch.  To absorb those experiences and make sense of the world, they need to be engaged in imaginary play. Pretending helps children overcome fears and cope with feelings at transitional stages in their development. Imitating, imagining and dramatizing allows children to represent and re-enact their actual experience using symbolic language and social skills at each stage of their development. In the longer term this leads to a capacity for holding abstract ideas in their minds and allowing new and creative ideas to arise.

During role play, children can assume an identity through which they relate to other people and objects as if they were not themselves. It is common for children to extend themselves to a higher level of maturity and development during role play. This is particularly important for language development as a child becomes a different person, of a different age, in a different place.

Imaginative play also fosters cooperation between children. They learn to interact constructively to create a game or scenario that can grow into complex and absorbing entertainment. Such interactions help children to regulate their own behavior, since a cooperative game cannot progress if every participant insists on his or her point of view. In playing these kinds of games, children learn to give and take, and to entertain the possibility that theirs is not the only useful point of view.

Imaginative play is a valuable experience in its own right and an essential preparation for adulthood. It opens the way directly to creativity and resourcefulness. Among other things, imaginative play helps children learn the invaluable life-skill of putting oneself in another person’s position.

In my opinion, it is dangerous to deny your child the opportunity to engage in imaginative play for any reason. Supporting your child’s imagination and pretend play is critical not only to his or her development (illustrated above) and ability to function in an adult world later on, but also to the parent-child relationship. I think we can all agree that playing with your child creates a deeper, more meaningful bond. Engaging in imaginative play with your child thrusts you deep into their world which helps you to better understand the mind, emotion, and soul of your child. As a parent, you are really able to “see” who your child is.

The problem in today’s world is that imaginative play is becoming more and more obsolete. There is a great series of articles up at Frugal Mama that discuss pretend play but I would like to highlight the reasons she lists for pretend play becoming so precious:

  • Proliferation of digital media
  • No time
  • Toy superstores
  • Plainness is intimidating
  • Fear of the world outside
  • Unfamiliarity with nature
  • Homework and busy work
  • Competition for education

Were you nodding your head to some of these? I’m quite sure that at the very least, “time” and general busyness are two major distractions parents can all relate to when it comes to not fostering their child’s innate need for pretend play.

As parents, how can we feed our children’s imaginations? What is it that we can offer our children that will allow them to fully engage and loose themselves in their imaginations?

First, it is not our role as parents to “play” for our children. They know how to play much better than we do. Play is a child’s only job. Their mind is uncluttered and they can sink their entire being into simply playing. Adults bring preconceived ideas, prejudices, the idea of “right and wrong,” and a host of other calculated thoughts into the child’s realm of purity. If we “play” for our children (not to be confused with playing with our children when invited into their world) then we are defeating the purpose of play.

However, we can create an environment which offers children the freedom to engage and feed their imagination with reckless abandon. Here are a few ways in which you can give your child the space to engage in imaginative play:

Provide a safe and loving home where your child is protected from daily sensory overload. Be mindful of all you allow your child to see, hear, and touch.  

Be mindful of the fact that children absorb everything we say or do. Your child will imitate your gestures, tones and attitudes. All of this will come out in imaginary play. Be mindful of the “characters” you are creating through your words and actions. Show your child the good in the world. Give your child someone positive to become through play.

Rudolph Steiner (father of Waldorf) suggested that it is through the purposeful work of the adult in the home that provides the impulse for a child’s play. If a child does not have the opportunity to observe and take part in daily life in his or her own, there is little for that child to use as the basis for pretend play.

An overabundance of toys will de-stimulate a child’s imagination.  So many toys today offer zero opportunity for true imaginative play.  If toys do all the creative work for the child, the child’s brain does not have to engage.  He or she can just sit back and let the toy do all the playing.  Provide toys that can be used in a variety of ways and need a child’s interaction.  Baskets filled with large material squares made from silks or cotton make wonderful additions to a playroom. Simple soft dolls with suggested eyes or faces allow children to complete the faces in their own mind.  This way a doll is not tied to any one emotional expression and the child gets to create the faces to suit his or her need.   Finding dolls stuffed with wool give an added benefit of giving back the warmth of the child from the doll itself and bring a more enlivening quality to the doll and the relationship it develops with the child.

Experiences in nature develop curiosity and a sense of wonder.  Bring in rocks, shells, driftwood, cut and sanded tree limbs for building blocks, dried peach pits, seed pods, anything that can be transformed by the mind to represent other objects.  Bring nature into your verbal interactions and try to speak with imaginative terms like Mother Earth, Father Sun, Sister Rain, Rain/Wind Fairies, Brother Wind, Gnomes, etc…

While there is nothing wrong with reading to your child, oral storytelling is best because it encourages children to create their own images in their minds.  They need experiences from which to build these pictures, so begin with stories about their own adventures. Often times these storylines will continue in the child’s play.

Doing absolutely nothing allows your child to enter into an inner quiet and find a balance between the outer-world. It is during this downtime that your child is actually learning and creating memory. Aside from creating scenarios and storylines, children themselves step outside of who they are and become another person, animal, or thing. Giving them the mental space to do this in a quiet, peaceful atmosphere is crucial.

As a parent, how to you provide your child with the time and space to engage in deep imaginative play? Do you feel like you are shortchanging your child for some reason? For you, what do you see as the most important aspect of pretend play?

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  1. says

    I totally agree. I had to consciously step back and let my daughter lead playtime when she was little. She didn’t need me to come up with ideas for her, she just needed room to explore.
    Now she’s in a Waldorf school and we’re so fortunate that it’s a really good one. I’m constantly amazed by what the kids do with the simple toys and tools for creating. I have wished we’d never let the “other” toys creep into her playroom. We’re weeding out now as we’re moving and I’m really hoping to create a totally new and more organic environment for her in the new house.
    Once again, I love the way you put it all together and expressed these things.
    Thank you.

  2. Angela says

    We love imaginative play in our family…my kids are out back serving up delicious mulch & sand sandwiches 😉 Thank you for posting about the importance of this play!

  3. says

    I love participating in my 4 year old’s imaginative play! I have gotten to be a dinosaur, a train, a superhero, a horse, a fairy, and more. I suppose I am somewhat of a big kid myself and enjoy playing like this. It keeps me young in spirit!

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