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April 13, 2024

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Give Imaginative Play to Your Littles

While your children are little, balance digital time with pretend play. Little kids need the chance to develop a little creativity on their own!

What is it about a gigantic cardboard box? Well, it sort of fills up your living room and draws attention to itself. The next thing you know your toddler's inside of it pretending it's a race car. Or a space ship. Or a train. Or a volcano.

The next time Amazon delivers a big box to your house, don't throw it out. Instead, empty it out, set it up and say, "Look, Connor! It's a car!"

"Imaginative play fosters creativity and helps children explore the world," says David Elkind, Ph.D., author of The Power of Play (Da Capo Lifelong Books; 2007). In addition, imaginative play helps kids to feel strong, taking on the role of fireman or doctor or superhero.

With all of the screentime little kids are into today, it's more important than ever for parents to carve out time for their kids' free play — especially the imaginative kind.

"My wife and I are pretty conscious about exposing our daughter to too much tech early on," says Karim Dia Toubajie of Songkick, an American technology company.

"We both like creative play, so we prefer her to focus on toys, crayons and books," Toubajie says. "Her current usage is limited to a xylophone app on my phone — which looks like her real xylophone," he adds.

When in doubt, give her the real xylophone!

"Last Christmas, we spent a weekend with a 6-year-old who watched Minecraft YouTube videos for about 10 hours a day. I saw how easy it might be for children to get obsessed with digital."


While it's amazingly simple to give your child an iPad every time he wants it, and to just, well, cave to it, try to find a little balance for your kids where they can get involved in imagination-building activities, too.

"Imaginations and creativity are like muscles," Elkind says, "If you don't use them, you lose them."

Most children start acting out real-life experiences (such as pretending to eat or care for a dolly) between 12 and 24 months, says Susan Linn, Ed.D. in her book The Case for Make Believe (The New Press; 2009). Pretend play becomes more elaborate from age 3 on, especially if it's encouraged by parents. But older kids can get into doing shows and performances at home, too, especially with an invited audience.

Take a little time to get your kids' creative juices flowing! Here are great ideas for imaginative play:

1) PUT ON A PLAY (older kids with guest appearances from younger)

Some children are born into homes where imaginative play rules the roost. The parents may be actors or musicians, where practicing at home is a part of what the child sees and learns. But you don't have to be a theater person to help your child put on a play. Decide on a story you want to act out, such as Cinderella, or you can choose something from a book your child loves. You don't have to read lines, just wing the story because you know how it goes. Dig through your closets to come up with costumes and props. Decide which room will work best for the show. Consider erecting a curtain out of a large bed sheet. Control your lighting with a switch. Keep it light and silly as it should be. Your first "show" will be an experiment that will lead to a lot more shows and performances. Cue the aunts and uncles!


Start kids out by saying you're going to play restaurant. Use paper and crayons to make menus along with "Open" and "Closed" signs. You can use a child-sized table-and-chair set or your own kitchen table. Make sure your menu has easy items for kids to make; use play food or real. Decide who is a waiter and who is a customer. If you have more than two kids, let others be customers, too. Some parents get really elaborate with this by making plastic bins to hold play food, pots and pans, utensils, sweets, etc. Get the kids started then watch their imaginations fire away.


You need a play cash register, play money and an area where kids can set up a table or shelves where they will "shop." This works great on a porch or in a garage. Use everyday items and put little stickers on them with a price (kids can make these). Decide who's on the cash register and who the customers will be. Provide bags so "shoppers" can go through the store and select items, then have them rung up and bagged by the cashier.


There's a reason why Melissa & Doug have made a fortune in the toy industry. They know how much kids like to play in a pretend kitchen, with pretend items from cooking to cleaning. But your kids don't need fancy supplies to play house. They need big imaginations. Get them started by saying, "Who wants to be Mommy?" and "Who wants to be Daddy?" Use baby dolls, set up different areas outside, saying, "This is the kitchen!" and "This is your bedroom!" and watch what happens. Literally, kids can define "rooms" using stones and twigs, they will take the ball and run with it once you give them the go ahead.


Make slime. (Find a recipe here). Build a giant fort using sheets and allow the kids to spread it out across a bedroom or beyond. Put on a dance recital. Play "Olympics" in the backyard. Play dress-up. Play superheroes. Play veterinarian with stuffed animals. Play airplane. Play pop star and do a concert.

The sky's the limit for kids when it comes to imagination building. Technology leaders Bill Gates and Steve Jobs limited their children's use of technology at home.

About the Author

Susan Swindell Day, Editor

Susan Swindell Day is the editor in chief of Nashville Parent and the mom of four amazing kids.