To your young child, the world provides endless opportunities to create. Through imaginative play—often saturated in slaying dragons, playing house, and capturing villains—children can learn about the world around them and cultivate their creative thinking skills.
That said, the benefits of pretend play sessions swirling in make-believe monsters and heroic swashbucklers extend beyond the playroom.
Imaginative play can also help build self-confidence, improve language skills, and encourage social interaction.1 And, most importantly, it may be a vessel to cultivate a world of kindness.
What Does Imagination Look Like In Children?
Imagination is a child’s ability to visualize new ideas and concepts that aren’t present in their physical reality, often through mental imagery.
Depending on the age, interests, and inner world of your child, how they express their creative imagination can manifest in a variety of ways. Some young children prefer more action-orientated play, such as clashing foam swords, finding lost treasures, or dancing in an imaginary ballroom.
This type of play can encourage creative thinking, but it may also help facilitate:
- Hand-eye coordination
- Fine motor skills
- Agility and balance
- Problem-solving skills
Then there’s dramatic play. Dramatic play consists of what you would traditionally associate with imaginative pretend play, such as using costumes and props in elaborate roleplays, making an imaginary meal, or hosting a tea party for each of their much-adored snuggly friends.
Make-believe games are naturally enjoyable to young children and may also assist your child’s intellectual and verbal development.2 Playing with a variety of toys can also help your child more aptly create associations and spot connections between similar items, such as a toy apple and a plate.2
Around the age of three and older, children will begin to transition from independent imaginative play to engaging with their preschool peers.3 They may roleplay as parents and children or conjure up a storyline in which they must escape a monster by hopping on one foot.
This is also the time when children will learn how to play with others, which can involve:
- Respecting others’ space
- Learning to identify and express their emotions
- Regulating their emotions when feeling hurt
Importance of Imagination in Child Development
Imagination and creativity in the early years of childhood is paramount to your child’s mental, emotional, and linguistic development, specifically in children between the ages of two and seven.4 In fact, psychological studies have discovered that:4
- The use of grammar like subjunctives, future tense, and adjectives improve in children who participate in imaginative play.
- Imaginative ideas and play can help children become aware that their thoughts and perspectives may differ from other children.
- Dramatic play can help children develop cognitive flexibility—the ability to adapt the way we think, behave, and respond based on what’s happening in the world around us.
- Fantasy games allow children to express positive and negative emotions more easily, display empathy, and learn how to emotionally regulate.
- Children who participate in group creative activities can learn various social and problem-solving skills. Learn more about social skills for kids.
Fostering creativity also allows children to see the world beyond what it already is. This may involve a vast sea of pillows and comforters, with slimy eels lurking beneath, but it can also manifest beyond the make-believe.
A study found that children who imaginatively play experienced increased emotional engagement, thoughtfulness, and understanding—and fewer negative emotions like anger or selfishness.5
In essence, children can reimagine a world in which kindness, generosity, and connection are the focus when encouraged to let their imaginations flourish.
How to Encourage Imagination in Children
Creativity often comes naturally to children. However, many conditions in our lives—like systematic oppression, socioeconomic conditions, and experienced trauma—can discourage creative expression, particularly when children’s fight-or-flight responses are activated.
To create a safe place in which your children can express themselves freely, your communication and availability can do wonders. Research shows that parents who regularly engage with their children to discuss their environments—such as the color of the leaves—or carve out time for storytelling are more likely to encourage make-believe play.4
Another key ingredient in childhood imagination? Trust. While you may not think plopping their favorite stuffed animal in the mud is a particularly clean—or logical—choice, giving children the freedom to use their creative power without restriction can foster self-confidence, problem-solving skills, and unbridled imagination in childhood.
While you can trust children two and older to lead their own creative play sessions, parents can also inspire creativity in kids and connect to their children by:
- Spending time outdoors
- Reading bedtime stories
- Presenting paints, clays, and crayons
- Encouraging active play
- Introducing musical instruments
- Engaging in verbal activities like “I Spy”
- Asking open-ended questions
- Limiting screen time
- Scheduling unstructured time for exploration
- Engaging them with activity boxes
Inspire, Create, and Imagine With Slumberkins
An active imagination plays a vital role in childhood and imagination development, allowing children to express and regulate their emotions, engage in creative thinking, and practice kindness. And parents can inspire imaginative play by providing the resources, space, and encouragement children need to explore their imaginations without limitation.
An activity box like the Kinspiration Kit is designed by therapists and educators to spur creativity, build confidence, and encourage emotional strengths with an assortment of storybooks, world-building toys, and activity cards. And it’s the perfect addition to your toy box—or treasure chest (whatever your kid is calling it these days).
- "5 Benefits of Encouraging Your Child’s Imagination." Reader's Digest. Updated 01 April, 2022. https://www.rd.com/article/encourage-your-childs-imagination/
- Ryan, Maureen. "Why Dramatic Play Is Important for Toddlers." Verywell family. Updated on 13 April, 2021. https://www.verywellfamily.com/dramatic-play-290162
- "Child Development Guide: Ages and Stages." CHOC. https://www.choc.org/primary-care/ages-stages/#3-years
- Kaufman, Scott Barry, "The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development" Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beautiful-minds/201203/the-ne.ed-pretend-play-in-child-development
- Skarda. Kara. "This Is Why Your Kids Need More Imaginative Play." Parenting kind kids. https://www.parentingkindkids.com/imagination-empathy-need-more-play/