Most parents know that their children enjoy playing pretend. But did you know that imaginative play is more than just fun? It is helping your child’s brain develop to its full potential.
Do you know what authors L. Frank Baum (The Wizard of Oz) and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) had in common with several Nobel Prize winners? As children, they frequently played “pretend” and made-up imaginary worlds. “Imaginative play” is a bit of a buzzword right now in pre-Kindergarten and early elementary circles. Here’s why.
Being able to imagine means being able to see the world not as it is, but as it could be.
Call it Magic
Did you know that when your children are pretending to be tigers, superheroes, or astronauts, they are actually developing a part of their brain that will help them be better scientists, writers, or engineers? It’s true. Think for a second about the word “creativity.” Often, this is a trait that we ascribe to the artists and musicians of the world. But in reality, people in all fields of study rely on the creative centers of their brain in order to be innovators.
In “The Importance of Imaginative Play,” Dr. Gail Gross states, “This is the magical thinking of childhood that helps the brain develop creativity. This creativity, if allowed to blossom, is the same creativity that helps the scientist discover new cures for diseases, companies to come up with the next technological advances and inventions, and leaders to move their countries into peace.” Notice how she describes the child’s mind as “magical.” Being able to imagine means being able to see the world not as it is, but as it could be. “If dragons were real…” “If we could fly…” We need adults who are able to ask the “what ifs” in this world and science is telling us that this is a skill we learn during childhood.
Call it Science
When it comes to both parenting and teaching, there are several issues that boil down to a matter of opinion. The importance of imaginative play in childhood is not one of those issues. Psychology Today summarizes several scientific studies that document the benefits of children’s engagement in imaginative play or pretending games. These are just a few of the benefits of imaginative play:
Scientifically Supported Benefits of Imaginative Play
Increased ability to control behavior
Better problem solving skills
Better ability to express both positive and negative emotions
Higher ability in language usage
An awareness of different perspectives
Ability to integrate emotions into thinking
Ability to delay gratification
Increase in civility
Increase in empathy
And then there is this: “An important benefit of early pretend play may be its enhancement of the child’s capacity for cognitive flexibility and, ultimately, creativity… [studies found] that early imaginative play was associated with increased creative performance years later. Root-Bernstein’s research with clearly creative individuals such as Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant awardees, indicated that early childhood games about make-believe worlds were more frequent in such individuals than in control participants in their fields.” Wow. Let that sink in for a second. Play really is the “work” of childhood. It is building our children’s brains in ways other activities simply cannot.
How to Help
Here are some ways that are proven to foster creative and imaginative play in children (Resources are linked at the bottom.)
- Talk to your kids about nature. Get outside and have a conversation about what you find and experience.
- Talk to your kids about social issues.
- Read books together and have conversations about them.
- Make up bedtime stories.
- Never embarrass your child for using his imagination.
- Allow kids to use household items in play (pot, pans, blankets, wooden spoons, etc.).
- Don’t overschedule your child’s time.
Also, check out this article about how having boundaries for screen time encourages creative play.
Play time is not wasted time. It is not time that could be better spent. Playing is learning in children. So go ahead and build that blanket fort, invite that friend over to play Barbies, or let that boy wear his blanket cape. It may be just the thing to lead your child on to future success.
“The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development,” Psychology Today
“The Importance of Imaginative Play,” Huffington Post
“L. Frank Baum-The Man Behind The Curtain” Smithsonian Magazine
Tools for Imaginative Play
About the All-Star Blogger:
Melanie is a home educator of her four children ages 6, 9, 10, and 12. Melanie’s background is in science and she has a bachelor’s degree in Biology. Before becoming a mom, she worked in biomedical research. Melanie has many interests and whether it is science, literature, history, art, or music, she enjoys learning alongside her kids and helping them discover new things about the world. Her kids are involved in 4-H, Girl Scouts, horseback riding, piano, drums, and some sports, but at the same time, Melanie guards her family’s time and believes in leaving enough space in the schedule for rest and relationships.