Imaginative play is essential for children’s growth and creativity. Activities offer them the chance to develop their ability to co-operate with others, share ideas, improve and gain a sense of achievement, and a chance for them to connect with you as the parent. What’s more, if they lose a game or when something doesn’t quite go their way, there’s an important process of learning and understanding how to handle the temporary loss and any negative emotions that come with it.
Here are my seven ideas for cultivating imagination and play with your kids – try one, try them all and most importantly, have fun!
Put on a show
Encourage your children to write a story maybe using their favourite toy as the main character – they could draw or paint backdrop scenery using scrap cardboard to bring the character to life in their very own theatre production. Together you could put on a show for family members or friends. You could even go one step further and help them to film the character using a ‘stop motion’ app on a smart phone or tablet to create a short animation film. Who knows, they could be the next big screenplay writer someday!
Finish my story
This is where you use start a story with a sentence, e.g. the small dog sprinted up the hill with a giant egg when…and then the next person says the next sentence…a large bird shaped space ship swooped down and pecked the dog on the head and took the egg so the dog….and so on. This game encourages spontaneity and being creative with ideas. This added element of surprise can be so much fun as you have no idea what the next person is going to say or how it’s going to end! The key thing to remember is that when using imagination it doesn’t have to be realistic, so let yours and your children’s imaginations run wild.
Toy word association
Take a toy – maybe one that is buildable, which is great for sparking children’s imaginations – and think of as many words linked to that toy as possible. For example, if it’s a toy car, you might say wheel, road, journey…
Someone is then awarded the accolade of ‘best creative thinker for the day’. You could even create a medal which that child could wear until the next time it’s played.
Using any safe household object as a starting point, name its purpose, then get creative and think of other things it could be used for, e.g. a book becomes a hat or an umbrella. The sillier the better! Playing with a toy in a number of different ways is fantastic for helping children develop a flexible thinking style.
Don’t just limit a treasure hunt to Easter, this is a perfect summer game and always creates real excitement amongst those involved. Write clues that mean they have to imagine the place they have to go to next, perhaps even in a fun riddle or rhyme format. Verbally praising them when they crack each clue will help reinforce behaviours that you want to see more of, such as concentrating or sticking at something even when it’s hard.
It’s great to get kids outside and amongst nature as much as possible. Why not head to the woods and play the classic game of eye spy. If you take a moment to have a brief conversation about what’s around you – by looking and noticing the same things together (known as joint attention) we help children make sense of the world.
Finally…don’t always structure play time
Encouraging children to free play during unstructured times of the day really helps with imagination, flexibility and brain integration on so many levels. We often think that this time is wasted but actually it’s a chance for children to try out the skills they’ve been learning. Even falling out with someone can be a good thing when viewed as an opportunity to get to know their own limits and understand another person’s point of view. It’s a chance to increase self-awareness around how tense they might be feeling; tuning into themselves to notice their bodily sensations and encourage regulation both physically and emotionally. For example, by taking a long slow outbreath, this triggers the vagal nerve linked to our relaxation system. When children feel calmer it easier to explain what’s happened and make up, fostering the skills for healthy relationships in the future.
By Dr Shona Goodall, clinical psychologist & specialist in child and adolescent mental health. Dr Shona Goodall is part of the Kinder Collective, a panel of experts helping parents to spark imaginative play with their children.