For generations children have engaged in imaginative play, or "pretend play." It is a chance for a child to be transported anywhere, during any time period, and be anyone they want to be. Imaginative play can be elaborate or something as simple as making a "pretend" phone call. Parents don't usually give much thought to this type of play; however, it is an important part of a young child's development.
When a child is playing without any adult interference they are building their cognitive and social skills. They are learning how to interact in different situations — talking to people, sharing, exploring their world. When playing dress-up, they are practicing how to dress themselves and they don't even know it. If they are playing with other children, they are learning key social skills that will be useful in the future. When they play doctor, they are learning how to behave in that particular setting. They want to be grownups to make sense of the large world they live in. When taking on other roles, children are developing their emotions and how to appropriately express them to others. Empathy is learned through this type of play.
Parents should always encourage imaginative play. This can be difficult for adults because it requires a hands-off attitude. Letting your child's imagination run wild can be difficult and, honestly, can be messy. Here are some things that can help:
- Provide a space for this type of play. It can be something as simple as a small area of a room, or, if you are feeling adventurous, let the child take up a whole room or even venture outside. The great thing about children is they have brilliant imaginations and can do anything with any size area that is given to them.
- Give them props. A box can be turned into a rocket ship or a boat. Paper plates can serve four-course meals. A broom can be turned into a horse. The possibilities are endless. Costumes are a wonderful tool to help children develop their personalities.
- Make up stories. Parents need to sit down with their children and share stories. Make up something new and fresh. Don't be afraid to go against the grain. Have the child add to the story. It is a wonderful way to get a child's imagination going.
- Give them time. There has to be some time designated for play, but this type of play will not fit into nice little time slots. It may take a whole day for children to fully explore the new world they have created, and that's okay.
- Use dolls and puppets. Simple ones are okay. This can help their social skills develop.
As a child gets older, the time for imaginative play will be replaced with more structured activities. Eventually, it will end up being a fond memory. Make sure you take advantage of the time you have.