Ready, Set, Play! How to Inspire Pretend Play

pirates
Image via Katie Hurley

…when kids don't have the opportunity to play, they forget how to get lost in a world of imaginary thought.

My kids took me on an animal exploration trail today. In the backyard. We didn't have special outfits (any old clothes would do) or props, just an empty yard and our imaginations. As we walked around the yard, dodging trees and stepping carefully over fallen branches, we saw a baby giraffe, a tiger, a lion, several toucans, and a gazelle. We stopped to take pictures, warned the gazelle of the approaching lions, and climbed a mountain (a large rock) to get a better view. Truth be told, I simply tagged along and followed directions. The animal experts did the rest.

“I'm bored” are two of the most feared words in parenting, and sometimes, parents load kids up on summer activities to avoid moments of boredom. While a few activities help provide some structure, summer is actually the perfect time to catch up on unstructured play and tap into the imagination.

Pretend play boasts many benefits, including exploring new roles, working on problem-solving skills, increasing self-control, increasing assertiveness skills, and improving communication skills (to name just a few). It's also a lot of fun.

{ MORE: To the Parent Who's Raising Their Children Differently Than They Were Raised }

So why are some parents afraid to simply let kids play? There's no simple answer to that question, but overscheduling, increased screen time, and increased pressure overall can cause kids to struggle to fill the void when downtime suddenly occurs. In short, when kids don't have the opportunity to play, they forget how to get lost in a world of imaginary thought. They need to practice the art of letting go and playing the day away.

imagination kids
Image via Flickr/ Kris Krug

Get in the game

Earlier in the day, I was assigned the role of a pirate in search of treasure. I'm often given the role of the ‘bad guy,' as my kids enjoy playing the role of the heroes. Instead of gold, I demanded watermelons for my ship. This one simple change to the usual script set my kids off on an entirely different fruit-filled adventure for the morning. Although we were at the playground surrounded by other parents, I got lost in the role, and we played for 45 minutes without interruption.

When you let go of your own insecurities and join your child in play (even if that means acting like a watermelon-stealing pirate in public), you encourage your child to get lost in imaginative play and let go of worries and stress. You also create a lasting bond with your child. If play is the language of children, then parents need to learn how to speak it.

reading kids
Image via Flickr/ nerissa's ring

Read together

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My first grader knows how to read. When bedtime arrives each night, she sometimes reads a few pages of the chapter book of the week just to see what's coming next, but she always lets me start right where we left off. Sometimes she reads a few pages and then hands it over to me, but most of the time, I do all of the reading. Either way, we get lost in magical stories of fairies, laugh at Ramona's latest escapades, or daydream about a day in a chocolate factory. We chat, imagine, and cuddle up and bond. Inevitably, my daughter's play mirrors an interesting book the following day.

Reading–be it fiction or non-fiction, chapter books or picture books–opens a child's mind to new possibilities. The story might begin on the pages of the book, but when the child takes over, the story evolves and changes until it becomes something brand new. In that time, kids learn creative problem solving and explore new ideas and roles.
Your child's teacher will ask you to read with your child for 20 minutes each day. I say keep a book on you at all times and read whenever you can. Reading promotes creativity and imaginative play, especially when reading is done together.

cardboard box house
Image via Flickr/ davef3138

Use realistic props

You know what can inspire a trip around the world? An old boarding pass from your last flight. You know what triggers a safari? A ticket from the zoo with a giraffe on it. Empty cereal boxes can lead to a grand opening of a grocery store, and an empty box can become just about anything.

I dislike clutter as much as the next person, but keeping an inspiration box somewhere in the house can be great fun for kids. Store receipts, concert tickets, old credit cards, and empty applesauce jars might look like trash to you, but they just might be the treasure of a child in search of adventure.

Think twice before you empty that recycling bin, and keep a small box of realistic props handy. Your kids will thank you for it.

{ MORE: Take Back the Play Date! }

How do you inspire your kids to participate in imaginary play?

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Ready, Set, Play! How to Inspire Pretend 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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