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11 fun ways to encourage imaginative play in your child

kid want to play

Why should we encourage creative play in our children?

Never before has it been more important to encourage children to use their imaginations and take part in imaginative play. Is anybody else worried about the long term effects on children not learning to be imaginative? And aside from the serious future society concerns it’s a shame because imaginative, make believe is just pure fun and so we should encourage children to make the most of it whilst they can!!

However, it’s tough being a parent and trying to do the best for our little nippers all the time is a challenge; sometimes the easiest solution is to give into the good old BBC (British Babysitting Cooperation!) As much as some screen time is beneficial, I believe as parents we should be seeking out opportunities for our children to develop their imaginations as otherwise their brain development suffers. There is so much evidence to show that learning through play is an essential part of healthy learning and development for young children. And imagination exercises the brain. Like anything, without practise and exercise it won’t work as well and so if we don’t teach our children to be imaginative and encourage opportunities for imaginative play they will not develop this part of their brain which will actually do them a disservice in later life.

So if you think you will be keen to encourage your child when they are a teenager to do well in their school work and exams then I would start with encouraging as much pretend play in the early years as possible. Otherwise their brain may not be as well developed and ready for academic achievement as you may want!

As Albert Einstein said “Logic will get you from A to Z: imagination will get you everywhere”

There are so many other benefits to imaginative play, including social and emotional development. And with mental health issues being on the increase in young people it has never been more critical to help children with healthy mind development in the early years. Pretend play helps children to understand who they are and how they fit into the world. They can explore emotions, experiences and practice interactions in a safe environment. It helps with their Self -esteem and self -awareness as well as improving language and communication skills and physical development.

If nothing else the opportunity is  short lived and I bet we all wish some days that we could put down our task list and go and play dinosaurs or kings and queens or pirates outside!!!

So we know we want to encourage more imaginative play in our young children, but what if we are not sure how to do this? Do we just give them their toys and get on with it?

There are plenty of great toys that inspire and facilitate imaginative play however I wouldn’t rely on expensive toys. We’ve all experienced the toddler at Christmas time who much prefers to play for hours with the cardboard box rather than the toy inside!!

So if you need some inspiration here are 11 ways to ignite the imagination of your young ball of fun and encourage pretend play in your children……

1/ Organise the play space –

Spend some time organising the toy space and boxes so they are easy to find favourite toys and create games with them. Better still create themed boxes or prop boxes using not only toys but household and old items you have hanging around. For example….

  • Dressing up items (hats, scarves, old clothes, accessories etc.)
  • Blankets and pieces of fabric for den building
  • Old telephones and calculators
  • Cooking utensils
  • Stuffed and plastic toys


2/ Mix up the play environment –

Take toys outside and mix up where toys are used so they can create new environments. For example take the dinosaurs to the park,  set up a teddy bears picnic, airport or village in the garden.

dinosaur play

toddler playing with dinosaur


3/ Put on a show –

A lot of kids love creating a show! And as much as it can be as excruciating to sit through, it’s a great way for them to develop confidence, play with ideas of creating structure and stories and learn about team work if they are doing it with others. Don’t worry about the end product, let them enjoy the process and encourage them to create stage space, use music and props. If they don’t know where to start then suggest they act out their favourite film, story or song. And facilitate their show space – either inside or outside; create a staging area for them to work in. Depending on the age and enthusiasm of your children you may want to be involved, starting them off with some ideas and even taking part and being parts alongside them (this is great as children LOVE telling their grown up’s what to do, so a great experience for them to do this.) Or if they are older you can give them an objective and a time limit and say you want to come and watch their show in 30 minutes.

children doing magic show

4/Set up a mud kitchen

What kid doesn’t love a mud kitchen! The initial reaction for this suggestion is ‘no way’ for most parents because of the mess! However if preparation is done and the right clothes are worn and everyone expects to get dirty then its fine! Obviously this is not an activity to do the morning before you are meeting the grandparents for lunch! But if you can spend an hour after tea doing this, you can throw them straight in the bath and clothes straight in the washing machine and everyone’s happy (and tired and ready for bed!)  The evidence for the benefits of outdoor play and exploration in nature are far reaching. And allowing your toddler a controlled time where they can get as muddy as they like is therefore ideal!

5/ Create a den

This doesn’t have to be outside, although that is great too. But a living room den is one of the most exciting things ever!! Get chairs, blankets, cushions and set up camp with your tikes!! Once it’s set up take snacks and stories inside and get cosy!! If you end up shifting sofa’s and tables to make it you have the added benefit of being about to reach areas that need cleaning afterwards as you may as well before you put them back!! So it gets a job done too!!

6/ Set up role plays and take part with your little one –

Shops, schools, transport, airports, restaurants, doctors and mechanics all make great scenarios to role play out. Don’t worry if you don’t have actual items to use – it’s about make believe! I was recently talking to a producer who was casting a new children’s BBC programme and was visiting schools and asking reception aged children to pretend to have a tea party with her. She said about half the children she met and played with didn’t understand what she meant by pretending to serve her an imaginary drink! Which is worrying! So get pretending with them!

7/ Go outside and find what you can to make a fairy house and fairy garden –

Bark, leaves, twigs, whatever you can find and get creative.  You could even get some air drying clay and use that for some structures for your garden. It’s not expensive and can be bought at most craft shops. Encouraging children to create structures and design spaces in this way is a great way to get them thinking imaginatively, not just about the world of fairies but also how to be creative in what they create.

outside nature play

8/ Use a large cardboard box to make a puppet theatre –

Just cut a large square hole in the top half of the front, and a smaller one in the back where the junior puppeteers can enter. Hang a curtain inside the stage to hide the young performers. Make puppets out of socks or let them use dolls and stuffed animals to act out the stories.

9/ Building blocks and junk modelling –

It’s amazing how much time a child can spend with a set of building blocks. Ones that are colourful and different shapes are great too. Save up small cardboard boxes, kitchen rolls and other sturdy and clean rubbish too and do junk modelling together. This is an activity I guarantee once you start you will get carried away and end up with your own masterpiece!!

playtime with bricks

10/ Use your book collection –

As well as reading stories together, act them out; gather props to help in the expressing of the story. Encourage your child to draw a picture of different scenes in the stories or even feelings of the characters.  Certain stories like ‘Going on a bear hunt’ are good as you can create the space in your living room and create your own obstacles to act out the story.

parent and child reading

11/ Create a luck dip bag –

Create a bag with a variety of items – toys and non-toys (but intriguing, safe items from around the house that have interesting textures) that can be easily taken around with you and used for a ‘lucky dip’ surprise anytime and any place you need some play distraction!

And a few bonus ideas –

Join in with your children’s play – research shows that adults who join in with their children are able to understand their children and communicate better with them. Avoid taking over though, let them lead. It’s a good idea to watch them play first and then when you join in stick with the theme / characters that they have set until they tell you otherwise. They will love feeling like they are in the driving seat and it will give them confidence and help them develop leadership and communication skills in telling you what they want you to do in the scenario. Remember play doesn’t have to be perfect.

If a child doesn’t know how to pretend they’ll rely on you to start the play. In which case see which toy takes their interest and then pick their favourite and start to do something interesting with it – dressing a doll, flying the plane or pouring an imaginary cup of tea.  Taking turns with a toy which captures a child’s heart is the best way to motivate them to start pretending.

Keep it simple. There’s no need to introduce too many new pretend ideas at once. Children love repetition and learn from it, so they will likely enjoy practicing any new pretend actions over and over again.

Have a good time. The time with young children is short and precious. Soon you’ll be battling over homework and what time they will be in…….so make the most of this time with them now……

Happy playing and let us know your favourite scenarios and imaginative play ideas……

dad playing with toddler


For 5 easy and fun art activities to do with your children at home see here

For 9 Fun Ideas for Water Activities to do with your Children in the Back Garden see here 

For fun and imaginative birthday parties see here

Have you seen the imaginative, interactive treasure hunt games here….

kids activity treasure hunt packs


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