I have always been fascinated by children’s imaginative play and love watching them totally live themselves into the moment, seemingly oblivious of their ordinary, everyday surroundings.
Beside the hours of fun that imaginary play provides, researchers have also found that it has several developmental benefits:
* Children automatically engage in problem solving during imaginative play, they are required to plan the events and sequence them in the correct order. This also leads to increased creativity as they have to find novel ways to deal with problems that they would not encounter in their everyday lives.
* It encourages social skills as children have to negotiate, share and take turns.
* It helps them to see the world from different perspectives, contributes to their theory of mind (the awareness that other people may have thoughts that differ from their own) and lays the foundations for the development of empathy.
* It contributes to language development as they begin to use words that fall outside of their everyday vocabulary.
* Imaginative play can be empowering – children are able to experience what it may be like to be the parent / doctor / firefighter and to have control over a fantasy situation. It helps them to face their fears and provides the opportunity to safely experiment with making (and breaking!) the rules.
* They become better at separating fantasy from reality.
* It encourages emotional expression as children tend to project in their play those issues that they are struggling to deal with in reality. I once worked with a little girl who, after suffering a near drowning, would play this scene out over and over with the toys in the playroom. She was never able to verbalise her fear, but it was clearly evident in her play. Until one day, out of the blue she simply lifted the Barbie doll out of the plastic pool and proclaimed “okay, that’s enough” – her nightmares stopped, she became less anxious and all returned to normal, without us ever so much as discussing the issue.
Experts agree that imaginative play is vitally important to healthy childhood development – so bring out the dress up clothes and props, build the forts, gather the stuffed animal toys and let the fun begin!
Related articles: The importance of play in Early Childhood Development