Imaginative or pretend play is important for young kids, because it encourages inventiveness, originality, and learning. Create a play environment that sparks creativity in your home.
The Power of Pretend
Ed Gallagher, director of education at Beck Center for the Arts, says parents can foster learning for their kids by being role models. They can partake in the creativity and imaginative play hand-in-hand with their child, get down on the floor, get dirty, put on clothes, and be silly. In doing so, they’re going to show their child it’s fun, safe, and creative, and that so much can come out of it. At other times, parents need to step back and let the child run with it, and allow the child to be the leader and take control.
One thing parents can do is have a box with different styles of hats and scarves, different types of clothing and jackets, or accessories that allow kids to be different than they are, Gallagher says. When it comes to art, specifically, you can give children a wide variety of crayons, markers, colored pens and pencils, and let the kids be messy. Set the stage with a huge drop cloth, or have plenty of cardboard available, and let kids be creative. If they only have an 8-inch by 11.5-inch piece of paper, it may be limiting to them, or when it comes to musical instruments, the kids aren’t making noise, they are making music.
“The big thing is to give kids the tools they need to be creative,” he adds. “So when they’re imagining, and they have turned the refrigerator cardboard box into a ship, they’re imagining what it’s like to be out on the ocean, and they talk about the wind and the water blowing around, or that it’s hot and dry on the boat, even though they are surrounded by water.”
Daniel Hahn, vice president of education at Playhouse Square, says parents should set aside time to play with their children, even if it’s only 10 or 15 minutes, a half hour, or an hour.
“Ten or 15 minutes can be very rewarding for kids,” he says. “So one, it’s the time, and two, it’s the space. I have a vivid memory of the time I spent with my daughters when they were toddlers. We took all of the cushions off of every couch and chair in the living room, and I just said, ‘Get to the moon,’ and it was as vague as that, and from there, they really were able to get creative. One daughter dragged in a kitchen chair from the other room, and set up a whole space ship with cushions, and in their imaginations, one was driving and the other one was navigating, and they took off in this.”
“So, when I think about space, I think about using everyday places in your house, whether it’s a kitchen table, or couch cushions, where kids can really go for it,” he says. “It just takes a little nudge, or a little direction, and their minds will just go.”
“When guiding a child’s imaginative play, parents can show interest in a child’s play by participating or sharing in their play sessions,” explains Alyssa Lombardi, manager of marketing and communications at The Fine Arts Association.
She says parents can take advantage of a setting to demonstrate a simple if-and-then for them to build on – If I stack the sticks on top of each other and place the toy dinosaur in the middle, then it has shelter. This builds on their play, where they can branch off with other ideas and patterns they find.
Creating a Space
Gallagher adds it’s important for parents to provide a child with a space that’s their own.
“Is there a small corner, or a small space, or whatever the parent can carve out for them, where all of those creative things can live?,” he says. “Give them a place for all those things that will help them to write, dance, act and do music. Have all those things in a certain place that they have access to. The access is important and space is important, and the ability for them to do most of it, safely, on their own is important.”
Hahn says the sky’s the limit when it comes to kids’ creativity.
A large stuffed animal might become a car they ride around on. They can use building blocks to make a fort, or a seat cushion could become a doorway.
Whether indoors or outside, he adds, there are plenty of opportunities to engage in imaginative play during the winter months.
“Watching what kids build in the snow is such a delight, because it’s a new universe for them out there, and they can really surprise you with some of the things that they do, beyond making snowballs, or having a snowball fight,” he says.
Hahn says at Playhouse Square, “Frozen” is always popular with kids and their parents.
“Kids know all the songs and characters. So, you could just set it up and say, ‘do you want to play Elsa today?’ and that may be all you have to do. Then, the child is off to the races,” Hahn says.
Lombardi says children can find sticks, rocks, and other items in an outdoor adventure, bring them inside and create a safe home-in-a-box for a favorite toy or animal figure.
This brings together real-life items with “play” items to create a unique imaginary story about how the figure stays warm during the cold winter weather. Parents can encourage the child to share why they chose certain items, what the figure is feeling, etc. A creative space for various props of different sizes, shapes, and colors. A small table and chairs, for example, can encourage dialogue.
“Imaginative play is where the young child can be free to use whatever resources they have to be creative, to make the things they have at their disposal their own,” Gallagher says. “They can make something, be something different than it already is, or use it the way it’s intended to be used, so they can be as creative and free-thinking as they would like to be with whatever they have at their disposal.”
For example, pots and pans are meant for cooking and making lunch or dinner. But when a kid flips them upside down and makes a drum set out of them, that is as imaginative as they can be with those things in that moment, he says. So it’s re-purposing everything they have to make it their own, and making it something different, possibly, from its intended use. In some ways down the road, “it can be the mother of invention.”
A child is using their hands and feet, their minds, and all their senses. With the example of the drums, he says, they are going from banging to rhythms and patterns, and they are keeping a beat, or they are playing along to a song on the radio.
“A parent can latch onto that and say, ‘Maybe the child is interested in drums,’ but if nothing else, they’re showing some interest in music, because that’s where they’re going,” Gallagher says.
Kids can think outside the box. It also opens the door for learning how things work and interacting, finding out what things work together, and what things don’t.
“If they are making a permanent project like a picture, they are learning how to put all the different colors together without someone telling them what to do,” Gallagher says. “They’re becoming explorers and testing things. Even if we already know that when we put two colors together, you get a different one, and when we put blue and yellow together, you are always going to get green, they don’t know that. So, when they get imaginative and creative, they are learning some of those things on their own, and they can make it their own, too.”
“It’s important for parents to think about how they can set those opportunities up, and it also helps to create good, healthy childhood environments,” says Jeannie Fleming-Gifford, executive director at Fairmount Center for the Arts. “Kids don’t have to have everything out all the time. They can work in themes, break out toys, or put away toys, and set up different stations.”
She adds that toddlers are very much involved in parallel play, as they might not have the social skills yet to interact appropriately with another child or an adult.
Hahn says it can be unscripted playing that children do.
Role playing is a good example of that, where they act out different experiences. Imaginative play is not literal, and there are no rules. Kids are experimenting, building social skills and making decisions.
Introducing the Arts Through Imagination
Lombardi says imaginative play is really an important part at the beginning stages of life, because it gives children similar experiences to real-life things, but it also boils it down to something that is more interactive for their specific age.
She says in the arts sector, there are a lot of different ways to implement imaginative play.
Acting, specifically improvisation, is one of many ways to encourage children ages 2-3, Lombardi says. Children can imagine that they are their favorite Disney character or superhero. Through dialogue and situational interactions, this can be at home or in a classroom setting.
Fleming-Gifford says it is about providing them with things like uninterrupted time to connect with either a toy or art materials. This gives them an hour or two to slow down the pace.
“I think that’s something we are all challenged with, considering the busy lives we lead, with so much stimulation,” she says. “It’s okay to give kids a moment. You don’t have to feel like you have to ask all the questions, or direct all the play, but see where they’re at, how or if they want to engage with you or another child, and be okay if they don’t.
“Just let them play and be themselves and see what happens. I think our role as parents and educators is to provide a safe and supportive setting and access to materials. There’s value in letting kids work through things in an imaginative way, to let them be where they are at, and to see what the outcomes are.”