What is imaginative play?
Imaginative play, pretend play, and role play. Play in which you pretend to be someone else, something else, somewhere else or in some other situation. :Like when your toddler pretends to be a cat all day, or you play doctors.
Have you seen the millions of things that a cardboard box or a stick can become in the mind of a child? All it takes is a little imagination!
We combine imaginative play with creative play, including writing, drawing, art and crafts. This is because creative play that involves expression or creating representative images ties strongly into similar psychological processes and developmental milestones.
Making a model requires having a mental image or concept and considering how to represent it, and all its elements, in the medium you’re using. Creativity involves expressing one’s own ideas, trying new things and experimenting with changing materials.
Imaginative play often links with social play, together play, action play, narrative play and object play.
Imaginative play and learning
Play is the means through which children learn, so what are they learning through imaginative play?
Imaginative play suggestions
- Play pretend: grab a toy, a teddy, a character, a peg doll, draw eyes on a pebble, it doesn’t matter. Give it a name. Now, what adventures might Bob the pebble go on? Get involved!
- Adventures: make walks or journeys into mini adventures. Pretend to be an explorer walking through a jungle, or a jungle animal, or a gruffalo as you walk through some trees. Pretend to row a boat across an ocean, watch out for piranha infested swamps (puddles). Become a monster chasing your little one, or pretend a monster is chasing you both.
- Create a den, and pretend to be… well what might live in a den? Or is it a cave?
- Arts and crafts: drawing and mark making, junk modelling. Express yourself, use your imagination, have fun!
- Dress up: you don’t need themed costumes. Raid your old clothes, look in charity shops. Lacy underskirts, waistcoat, cut ragged cuffs into trousers they are too tall for, an old shirt, some hats, some old jewellery or sparkly sequinned items; let their imagination do the work!
- Small world play: Playmobil, Grapat nims, a wooden trainset, toy animals and many more toys can be great for setting up scenes and playing out scenarios or telling stories.
Imaginative play at different stages
Imaginative play in babies
Babies don’t engage in imaginative play. Imaginative play relies on some pretty complex mental activity that they simply cannot manage. Occasionally it may look like.a baby is doing a bit of role play. They grab a TV remote and hold it to their ear and babble away, or the take a hand mirror and try to ‘brush their hair’. They aren’t actually doing role play or imaginative play though.
This is a baby trying out your modelled behaviours. It is how they learning many of their skills. However, whilst they see you talking into an object they don’t know that you are talking to someone, and listening to them too. They don’t know you brush your hair to make it neat or get rid of tangles, they just see you rubbing your head with something each morning and give it a try.
Imaginative play in toddlers
Young toddlers don’t really engage in imaginative play. The psychological processes and development that make it possible tend to develop a little later on. Suddenly, however, you are likely to see a huge leap in how they play. Preschoolers and upwards usually do lots of imaginative play.
Imaginative play requires the ability to create mental models. To have ideas i that are not related to the objects or events happening around them. It requires the ability to imagine feeling differently, or to imagine how someone else might feel (these require theory of mind and empathy). Toddlers begin to use items representatively to be something other than what they are. These require quite complex developments including the beginnings of theory of mind and empathy.
Imaginative play in adults
What does imaginative play look like in adults? For some adults it can be daydreaming. What if…I won the lottery, or that book had a different ending. Thinking about possibilities, and ideas in a fun way? That counts.
There’s drama too though, of course, and writing, or creating computer games. Perhaps you are a keen role play gamer (RPG) or attend Comicon in incredible costumes? Designing clothes., dreaming up flavour combinations to try in recipes, painting, crafting or creating whether it is fine art or toilet rolls tube creations with alongside your children.
Adults might also use their imagination in meditation to imagine a calm place, a happy place, a place that seems enticing, exciting, mysterious. When we imagine, our feelings tend to follow so imagination and imaginative play can have powerful mood altering effects, even for adults if you find ways that work for you.