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The Parent Show Blog

How to Encourage Imaginative Play

Kids playing with blocks.

Who says work and play don’t mix? In the first episode of The Parent Show, Angela chats with ImaginOcean creator and puppeteer extraordinaire John Tartaglia about the important role imaginative play has in kids’ development.

Yes, that’s right: good old-fashioned make-believe. It’s been squeezed out of the agenda for the past generation or so as schools focus increasingly on academics, but there’s a movement afoot to restore it. After all, studies have shown that kids who attend play-based kindergarten (rather than more academically-rigorous programs) outperform their peers in reading, math, creativity and social learning by age 10. Not only that, play boosts kids’ emotional development too.

“[Play] is how children make sense of the world around them,” says Ed Miller of the Alliance for Childhood. “It’s how they deal with stress and disappointment.”

Miller says that kids first begin to engage in imaginative play around the age of 3, then hit the peak of pretend around age 5. But the effects of child’s play last much longer than early childhood – which is why his organization is committed promoting it.

So, are you ready to join the movement? Here are four tips for helping kids get their play on.

1. Create a “playspirational” space. Kids love cozy nooks and corners, so find a place in your home that is a little bit away from the flow of the household and designate that as a play area. Miller calls these areas “secret” spaces, because even if they aren’t really hidden, kids feel protected enough to let their imaginations run loose. (For the ultimate play area, create a fort with a blanket and two chairs; your child will love you for it – even if your decorator won’t.)

2. Pick toys that multi-task. Be wary of toys that provide too much “story” to your little player. After all, a toy gun is always going to be a toy gun, but a long skinny block could be almost anything, including the top of a skyscraper, a spoon in a witch’s soup or the wall of a dinosaur zoo. Some of the best open-ended toys are old fashioned ones — balls, building materials, dolls and art supplies, for instance, all allow kids to drive the action of a game.

3. Go outside. For the ultimate unstructured experience, open your front door and let your child be the “line leader.” Turn over a few rocks and watch the ants, make mud pies out of dirt (no, it won’t kill you), or find some other kids on the block and step back as they create their own fun together. “The thing that is most attractive to kids about being outside is the thought that there will be people to play with,” says Miller.

If kids playing outdoors are a rarity in your neighborhood, consider banding together with other parents to form a neighborhood watch, whereby different parents can take turns supervising the outdoor activities of the group.

4. Resist being too instructive. The key to free-form play is that it is child-driven. So while parents can make suggestions to get things going (“Why not pretend the rocks are lily pads?”), it should be the kids who move the play along. And while you may be tempted to referee group play, remember that negotiating amongst each other is a part of how kids learn self-control and deferred gratification – two skills that will become invaluable later in life. As Miller explains, one of the benefits of group play is that kids learn that they sometimes have to give into another person’s needs if they want a game to continue.

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