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What is imaginative play? 10 ideas for the whole family

Have you ever bought your little one a toy, only to watch them play with the packaging for hours instead? With a little imagination, children can turn the simplest of objects into toys worthy of hours of attention. This kind of pretend-play is worth encouraging, too – here’s why.

What is imaginative play?

Imaginative play is when a child uses their imagination to role-play scenarios they have seen, experienced or would like to experience. It’s a kind of open-ended, unstructured play, with no rules, goals, or result – except that kids learn a lot along the way. 

Examples of imaginative play can include pretending to cook, clean, save the world, beat bad guys, host exceptionally dignified dinner parties, become the mayors of cities, slay dragons and extinguish fires. There is no limit to what can be considered imaginative play, as long as your child is using their imagination (and sometimes, props) to act out the scenario.

So what are the benefits of imaginative play?

Kids these days are surprisingly busy. As well as school and homework, plenty of them also play sports, join clubs, are tutored, and take music or language lessons. Imaginative play allows kids to relax, let go, and just be kids. 

But the benefits of imaginative play don’t stop there. Experts believe that this kind of real play can do a lot for kids’ development, improving their social and language skills, boosting their creativity and problem-solving abilities, keeping them active, and (most importantly) making them happy.

So how do you pull kids away from TVs, tablets, and laptops, and encourage them to simply play? Here are some examples of imaginative play activities to get you started. 

10 imaginative play ideas to try with your kids

While the imaginative play ideas below can help you kick off some amazing games of pretend with your kids, it’s important to avoid imposing your own idea of what the game should be on them. If your kids say the rug you bought for an imaginary picnic is a patch of deadly quicksand, go with it – and start looking for a branch to pull them out!

  1. Cook an imaginary meal. Children love to act out the ordinary things their parents do. Help your little one get into the role of future chef by laying out cooking equipment, “ingredients”, or even a drawn-out hob for them to play with. Let them serve you up a meal, and prepare to pretend that mud pie is your favourite.

  2. Throw picnics and tea parties. Bad weather outside? No problem. Set up your own indoor picnic with a picnic rug, your child’s favourite toys and a few kitchen-related props. Remember: pinkies up at all times, and never fail to ask whether Teddy would like more tea or cake. Etiquette matters. 

  3. Play super heroes. Don a cape or choose an action figure and embark on the greatest fight between good and evil that the world has ever seen. It’s even more fun if you play the villain and let your child defeat you. Perfect your “I’m meeeellllltiiiing” speech, and remember that you would have gotten away with it, too – if it weren’t for those pesky kids . . . 

  4. Turn a box into . . . anything. One of the best things about imaginative play is that you don’t need any special props to do it. For example, an ordinary large-ish cardboard box can become a house, a car or an aeroplane. Flatten it out, and you have a desert island. Give your little one a few boxes and watch for a bit to see what they do. Jump in once they’ve decided what the game is going to be.

  5. Put on a performance. It’s the ultimate improv exercise: using whatever props you have to hand (puppets, dolls, action figures, hairbrushes, boxes can all help), act out a play with your child. Let them dictate the plot as you go!

  6. Plant up a (fake) garden. They might only be cardboard cutouts of flowers and imaginary vegetable patches, but your child can still have fun watering, weeding and looking after them. All the fun of a real garden, with none of the risk.

  7. Build a city. Toys like Lego and building blocks can be useful props for this game. Help your little one build a metropolis, then run the town together.

  8. Clean the house. Ever turned around after doing a household chore, only to find a little helper copying you? Kids are often strangely fascinated by housework. The next time you’re vacuuming or mopping the floor, give your child a prop so they can follow you around the house and take part.

  9. Run a shop. If your child owned a shop, what would they sell? Help your child stock their shop’s cupboards, pretend to be a series of customers, and use (fake) money to buy their wares.

Play explorer. With a simple magnifying glass, accompany your child on an expedition around the house. Could a hair clip be the key to a lost temple? A sweet wrapper the cloak of a tiny magician?

Sounds fun, right? Remember, the benefits of imaginative play can extend to you too — so connect with your inner child and lose yourself in a world of imagination. 

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