In my last post, I gave some tips on how to encourage our children in free-play. Tips for them but also tips for us. I posted it thinking, “Wow, I hope parents don’t think I’m Captain Obvious or Offensive, telling them how their kids should play…”.

Since writing the piece, I caught up with a writer/director/teacher friend of mine who shared she has a current gig at her local kindergarten, teaching the children how to play.

As in, she leads some imaginative exercises in order that the children might be encouraged or stimulated enough that interactive and imaginative ongoing games are the result. I was gob smacked.

Not only did my post seem more relevant but also I was amazed this was a thing and that kids were struggling to be able to unlock their imaginations and ‘play pretend’ on their own.

Why was this, we asked? Was it :

a) too much screen time?

b) not enough free time/ too many structured activities (I touched on this last time)?

c) ‘helicopter’ parenting, watching our child’s every move and telling them how everything works?

(A favourite child care specialist of mine, Janet Lansbury, has written a fascinating article about understanding how capable and determined our children are to learn, and to figure things out themselves, if given the chance.)

We thought, maybe it was d) a bit of all of the above?

So, why IS it important for children to be able to use their imaginations?

I mean, childhood is still revered as a precious time to be valued (it wasn’t always the case, with children going out to work asap, sitting quietly in the corner until they were old enough to be ‘useful’…) but as a society there seems to be some embarrassment or awkwardness perhaps around children just being themselves, imperfect, not having all the answers and wanting (needing!) to be a bit ‘silly’ sometimes.

I see it quite often, parents or carers who are very quick to ‘help’ or explain how a toy should be used or how something should be done, instead of letting a child experiment or investigate a new concept on their own.

Children learn through play and hands-on interaction, therefore the benefits of imaginative or creative play are many and varied, including:

  1. Self-expression. A child can think about who they are, their interests and make themselves heard (something we all struggle within this age of obsessive media wrangling for our time and attention and devotion… that’s another post). Finding your ‘voice’ builds confidence, self-worth, boosts creativity and innovative thinking.
  2. Learning how the world works. ‘Make-believe’ situations are a great way for children to apply their understanding of a particular practice (e.g. tea parties). Even ‘risky’ play such as ‘goodies and baddies’ can allow children to be exposed to a healthy level of ‘scared’, and to assess risk and activate their fight/flight instincts.
  3. Social interaction. I used to play with dolls. I used to create whole worlds (and people with comprehensive backstories) out of household objects – textas, bookmarks. I would play these games for hours with a good friend and the people in our games would have all manner of life experiences, many of which WE had yet to live out. Children learn about the world around them and figure out how it works, testing it through playing pretend.
  4. Processing emotion. Observations and emotions are processed through children’s imaginative play (I mean, a three-year-old doesn’t often sit down and talk about their feelings. They’re more likely to play a game with toys and re-create what’s happened.) Creative play is therapeutic.

(Look up my previous post for ideas for encouraging free-play if your kids are out of practice. Remember, free-play means they drive it, not you!)

To close, here’s an example of playing-to-learn: My five-year-old Prep student is currently learning to read. I knew she felt a bit anxious about starting school (she started Term 2, when the timing was right ) particularly as she ‘couldn’t read’.

You can imagine my joy now, when I see her pick up a book and ‘read’ it to her dolls or just to an imaginary listener. She doesn’t read the words but PRETENDS to, making up fabulously weird stories that make sense (grammatically, at least). She is never lost for words. Instead of trying to get her to read the correct words written in the book, I choose not to interrupt her game and let her continue her reading.

If I jumped in and started correcting her, I would be cramping her style and ‘wrecking’ the game! I’m excited she’s self-directed to this activity and she’s obviously building her confidence and skill around this new idea of reading aloud.

She wants to learn about it and get better – and she’s doing so through play. Later, we’ll sit down and go through her reader from school and we can then concentrate on word association and telling the written story.

As parents, ‘teaching moments’ are everywhere. I have to remind myself it’s not always me who has to do the teaching – if we remember our children are capable and wired to learn, we can sit back and trust they will experiment and discover things on their own, with the help of their imaginations. We can relax a bit (woo!) and be ready to help when they need it.

You may also like to read:

Playtime Rules 

Connect with your kids with nature bonding activity

8 Minutes a Day – Quality Time 

Angels and Demons- shape shifting behaviour in our kids 

5 things to let go of in parenting that will save your sanity 

You’re doing a great job