3 Ways to Encourage Imaginary Play

Image via Katie Hurley

The word “imagination” often triggers visual imagery of little kids running around in costumes taking on various roles or playing with cars and dolls or other favorite toys.  Imaginary play is one of the benchmarks of childhood, and kids love to get lost in their imaginations.

Between rigorous academics, structured after school activities, and increased screen time, kids today are busy and spending less time engaging in unstructured play.

So do adults.  Adults use the imagination to solve complex problems, think creatively, and take a break from the daily stressors life has to offer.  The very reason that adults have the ability to tap into this important cognitive skill is that it is developed through the art of play during childhood.

It should be, anyway.

Childhood has changed over time, and kids today don’t necessarily have enough time to engage in imaginary play. 

In fact, some kids aren’t even sure where to begin when it comes tapping into the imagination.  They file complaints of boredom as they wait for a structured form of entertainment to emerge.  It’s time to get kids back to the business of play.  And it has to begin at home.

3 ways to encourage imaginary play:

Image via Sara McTigue

Create the play space:

Kids need a clean and organized place to play.  They need easily accessible toys and props that inspire creative thought.  Think beyond the princess and doctor dress-up outfits and try to provide options that truly fit your child’s interests and personality.

Too many toys at once can overwhelm kids and cause them to check out.  If your child is having trouble getting started, consider pulling out one or two options for consideration.  Whatever you do, don’t throw a bunch of toys on the floor and walk away. 

{ MORE: Putting Play In Every Day with Kaboom }

Learn to live with the mess!  Imaginary play often includes props, art supplies, and even snacks to match the theme.  Try not to place too many restrictions on messy play to allow for creative thought.   

Yes, this means supervising cleanup at the end of each day to ensure that the space is available the next day.  As overwhelming as a playroom might appear at the end of a particularly creative play session, it is actually a sign of a great day of play.  And cleanup is simply part of the process.  Make it fun and the kids won’t see it as such a burden. 

tea party
Image via iStock

The very essence of unstructured play is that it is child-led.  But every once in a while they might need a little inspiration.

Idea sticks:


Sometimes older children get stuck in a debate about what to play, or can’t really pinpoint where to begin.  Once they have a concrete idea, they are likely to jump right into planning and executing the play, but getting started can be a challenge.

Idea sticks are a great way to inspire imaginary play without forcing your child to play out a certain theme. 

Write simple story starters on extra large Popsicle sticks and place them in a jar in the play area.  Story starters might include things like, “One day I took a trip to the moon …” or “We boarded the ship and set sail …”  Provide a setting and an action and let your child take over from there. 

forest kids
Image via iStock

See new places and learn new things:

Every time you take your child somewhere new, you open your child up to new imaginary play material.  I recently took my five-year-old son to the La Brea Tar Pits for the first time.  He’s been playing saber tooth tiger and “stuck in the tar” ever since!

You don’t have to plan a huge outing for your child to learn new things and find new material, but it does help to break from routine.  New playgrounds, new walking paths, and new museums are all great ways to expose your child to new stimuli. 

And if you truly can’t get out to check out new locations, take a trip to your local library and stock up on some “new” reading material.  Books about animals, countries, and space are all great resources for inspiring imaginary play. 

{ MORE: How You Know You're Winning at Parenting }

What is your child's favorite imaginary play scenario? 

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3 Ways to Encourage Imaginary Play

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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  1. mommy nhoj says:

    I’d love to these with my daughter. I have to agree, one toy at a time. 😉

  2. LIZ says:

    i love this article im gonna put this in practice


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