How To Encourage Imaginative Play In Children (Even If You Don't Enjoy Playing Yourself)

AD Imaginative play is an important part of childhood and it has a huge number of benefits. As parents we want our children to spend less time on screens and be able to come up with ideas to entertain themselves, but this isn’t always easy to do. When I ask my children to get off their devices they normally complain and soon after that they say they are bored.  So how can you move them from this state to happily playing?

While I like to play structured games with my children or doing crafts and cooking I personally struggle with pretend play and I know I'm not the only Mum to feel this way. If I don't enjoy it myself how can I get my children started with imaginative play? This post identifies the benefits of imaginative play and how to encourage it in your children, even if you aren’t a fan of playing yourself.

two young children involved in a role play game of vets and looking after a poorly cat

What is Imaginative Play? 

There are many names for imaginative play including pretend play, creative play, make believe and role play, but in essence they are all the same. It is unstructured play where children create new worlds or adventures. While using toys and props can make it easier or more engaging for children the play doesn’t have to use anything. Imaginative play can be enjoyed by children on their own, with friends or with adults. 

Sometimes children will start out with a clearly defined idea of the imaginary world or game they are playing, but often as the play develops it takes new and creative directions. 

A preschooler with basic cat facepainted whiskers next to some cuddly animal cats and dogs
Miaow I'm a cat

The Importance Of Imaginative Play for Children

There is no age limit on the benefits of imaginative play and it can help children from babies through to teenagers.  It is particularly important for children because:

  • It helps them work through new concepts and explore them in a safe environment. 
  • It allows them to have control over shaping the direction of play.
  • It helps children to practice real world situations so they are better prepared for them in real life. This may include copying what they have seen in the real life or TV. 
  • It encourages empathy as they can explore different characters and emotions.
  • It helps them practise interpersonal relationships.
  • It helps them to develop their language skills.
  • It encourages problem solving, negotiation and compromise especially when playing with friends or siblings as they will have to agree the rules of their imaginary world or game.
  • It helps to inspire their imagination and create stories.
  • It helps to develop bonds with friends and caregivers. 

10 Ways to Encourage Imaginative Play in Children from Toddlers to Teens

Some children don’t need any prompting to create imaginary worlds and stories, but for others (and many of us as parents playing with them) it can be hard to get started. I’m also not naive, the competition for play with screen time is a big challenge in today's world, but the difference in my children’s behaviour after an hour of screen time versus an hour of play is significant so I use the suggestions myself below to encourage imaginative play with my family.

Start with a story

When imaginative play is unfamiliar or children are used to directed play (where someone else is telling them what to do) a good way to start is by reading a book or watching a short programme. You can then encourage them to recreate the story with cuddly animals and toys they can find around the house and see where it leads.

Set up an invitation to play

An invitation to play is basically just setting up toys or items in a tempting way that encourages the child to go straight in and play with them as soon as they see them. It works best if you set them up overnight ready for when they come down in the morning or when they are at school or nursery so it’s a surprise, rather than trying to set it up with them watching over your shoulder. Role play toys like vets kits can be a great way to do this if you are struggling for ideas. 

Siblings playing with cuddly toys as pretend vets to prompt make believe play
Role play toys and fancy dress like the Melissa & Doug Vet Role Play Set and Pet Vet Play Set from Very can encourage imaginative play

Limit screen time with clear rules

My daughters rarely come off their electronic devices voluntarily.  Originally I tried to limit my children to a few hours a day, but I found this caused problems because they would all be on devices at different times and they would keep asking for more time. Then in lockdown I introduced a rule that they couldn’t be on their devices between 9am and 3pm (as well as bath time onwards). On weekends and holidays this gives us a big chunk of time where if we are at home my children have to find activities to entertain themselves. While this is sometimes crafts or cooking, they normally get toys out and create an imaginary world.

Get into costume

Fancy dress costumes like the this Melissa & Doug Fire Chief from Very are a really good way to help children get into character whether it’s as a superhero, a princess or a fireman. There is something about putting on a costume that sparks the imagination.

A preschool pretending to be a fireman dressed in a melissa and doug fireman costume
Dressing up can encourage children to explore different characters

Have less toys out

Sometimes having a large amount of toys around can be overwhelming. With a big choice it’s easy for children to go for the same toys over and over again, or ignore them all, but how many times have you sorted toys out to get rid of and they suddenly start playing with them? Toys don’t need to be new to be exciting, they just need to be fresh.  A good way of doing this is toy rotation. Toy rotation involves keeping most toys away in a cupboard or the loft and just having a small number out at a time. Every week or so change the toys that are out so they have different items to play with. This has the added bonus that your home is easier to keep tidy as well.

Gentle prompts

While open ended toys that can be used in a variety of ways are great, where children need a little help electronic toys that create suggestions can be helpful eg in the VTech Smart Medical Kit there is a healthcare tablet which suggests what might be wrong with the patient, but it still allows the freedom of play. This can be helpful when reluctant children are playing on their own to keep the momentum of play going without the need for ongoing interaction from you. 

A girl holding the healthcare tablet which comes with the vtech Smart Medical Kit
Electronic toys can help inspire imaginative play

Follow their lead

It’s really important that even if you set up the initial environment or prompt play with questions that children are encouraged to take over and lead the direction the play takes. Follow their lead, ask open questions and encourage them to direct you. Helpful questions to ask include: 
  • who would you like me to be?
  • am I doing this right?
  • what happens next?
  • where should this go?

Don’t worry about them getting bored

Sometimes children have to get through that hurdle of boredom to come up with new ideas. When they are really struggling they might need some inspiration. We might suggest my children play schools, doctors, vets, cafes or camping for example, but they don’t need to be as defined as these and children often start with an idea then take it their own direction. Don't feel you always need to come up with the activities though, it can be good for children to get bored every so often.

An older girl role playing doctors with her younger brother
Older children can be more open to imaginative play when playing with younger children

Ideas to Encourage Imaginative Play in Older Children and Teens

Encourage older children to play with younger children

The beauty of imaginative play is there is no age limit. Although older children can be more reluctant to get involved and play for shorter periods, my 11 year old will happily play with her younger siblings, especially when there are fun props to use. She might pretend it is for her siblings benefit, but it's good for her too.

Make them a director

Older children may feel a bit disconnected from play, but a great way to get them engaged is to encourage them to put on a play, puppet show or even direct a film or stop motion they can record on their phone. This involves coming up with a plot, a basic script, costumes, props, a set and more. It's still imaginative play, but just like if they are playing with younger children it gives them a license which allows them to embrace creativity and it puts a grown up spin on it.

The KidKraft Pet Vet set and Melissa & Doug vet outfit being played with by a preschooler
These ideas help encourage imaginative play even if you don't enjoy role play yourself

If you want to encourage your children to spend more time playing creatively and exploring through imaginative play I hope these ideas help you. 

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