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Girl imagining she's a princess warrior

Imagine That!

A child’s imagination is fascinating and worth developing. When children spend hours in front of a television or playing video games, they are passive participants. They are learning about someone else’s ideas and perhaps what that person has created with their imagination, but they are not developing the capacity to form and implement their own ideas, or master their own experiences. Children need unstructured playtime to broaden their imaginations and explore their creativity. Kids grow their cognitive, social, and emotional skills when they create their own stories and narratives and use all of their senses to explore the world around them.

Last week, my 3-year-old granddaughter had the great fortune of spending several days playing with her two older cousins who were visiting from out of town. This morning, she asked for her cousins and was told they will not be visiting again for a while because they live far away. She spent the morning making a playgroup consisting of her and three puppets. She placed the puppets together in a comfy chair, gave them imaginary snacks, and read them stories. Then she played a game of hide-and-seek with her new friends. She hid the puppets, counted to three, and found them. She was sad without her cousins, but her imagination invented what she needed to feel better. Imagination is a building block for problem-solving and an avenue for coping with sadness.

Unstructured play is a wonderful tool children use to try out new ideas and make sense of things they have seen, heard, or experienced. For instance, a child may drive a Matchbox car off an imaginary cliff and crash it to the floor before investigating what happened and sending an ambulance to the rescue. Perhaps this child simply has some extra energy and enjoys the clatter of the crash, or maybe they witnessed something on TV that confused them. Maybe Mom or Dad told them they had to be in their car seat so they wouldn’t get hurt if they had a car crash. It is hard to know what prompts particular imaginative scripts, but it sure is interesting to watch children at play and consider how they are creating, rehearsing, or coping.

When we encourage imagination and creativity in our children, we are enhancing their thinking skills, developing their confidence, and helping them manage their emotions.

As parents and caregivers we can:

  • Limit passive screen time.
  • Provide children unscheduled time each day. No sports, dance class, homework, or chores. All of those activities can build other skills, but do little to boost imagination and creativity.
  • Share time in nature. Allow jumping in puddles and messy play.
  • Stifle the urge to find something to do every time we hear, “I’m bored.” Boredom often sparks imagination.
  • Observe and respond to play themes that seem to indicate confusion about situations at home or school (e.g. separation, academic anxiety).
  • Invest in toys that children of all ages can play with and have potential for a variety of uses, like Play-Doh, blocks, art supplies, and manipulatives such as puzzles.

Visit our CHKD health library to learn more about children and play.

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About Michele Tryon, CCLS

About Michele  Tryon, CCLS Michele Tryon, CHKD community outreach coordinator and parent educator has worked with children and families for 30 years, providing services in the hospital, home, school and community setting. Michele is a Certified Child Life Specialist, a Certified Positive Discipline™ parent educator, a nationally recognized trainer/consultant for Nurturing Parenting Programs™ and co-author of The Nurturing Program for Parents and Their Children with Special Needs and Health Challenges©.