When I was a child, I used to make “dragon potions” and leave them on the fence posts in hopes that a dragon would be enticed to stop in for a visit. It would be a friendly dragon, I was sure, with a taste for a mixture made from water, dandelions, cayenne,cinnamon, black pepper, tobasco, and whatever other spices I could find in our kitchen cabinet.
I drew pictures of my dragon and wrote stories about him. Sometimes, I pretended my neighborhood had come under the thrall of an evil wizard, and only my dragon and I could save the day.
Such is the magic of childhood. Children love imaginative play, be it art, writing, music, or dramatic (pretend) play. While it may seem frivolous, this is the same imagination that led to cure for polio and the invention of the telephone. Creative play may be the most important play your child will ever engage in.
Some benefits of creativity are common to all forms of imaginative play. They:
- Improve cognitive skills
- Allow children to explore and come to grips with their feelings, even socially unacceptable ones
- Encourage self-expression
- Give parents, guardians, and teachers insights into what the child is thinking and feeling
- Provide opportunities for multi-ethnic and multi-cultural experiences
- Develop problem-solving skills
Other benefits are unique to the type of play the child is engaged in.
Art, for example (including sculpture, building with Legos or blocks, and other graphic or design arts) improves eye-hand coordination and develops spacial awareness, along with mathematical concepts of measurement, balance, shape, and size.
Writing and Storytelling improve language skills, including an increased vocabulary and a deep understanding of story structure and literary devices. In addition, oral storytelling boosts social skills and confidence in public speaking–no small feat, since public speaking ranks above death in the list of common fears.
Music benefits children physically, emotionally,
linguistically, and cognitively. Moving to music improves motor development and coordination, and studies have shown that active engagement–playing an instrument–actually helps children hear and interpret sounds they couldn’t otherwise hear. In an article for Time Magazine, Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory says, “We like to say that ‘making music matters,’ Because it is only through the active generation and manipulation of sound that music can rewire the brain.”
That brings us to Dramatic, or Pretend Play.
Simple pretend play can begin as early as age 2 – pretending to feed a doll or assigning a different role to a block or box (e.g., “Teddy’s house”). By age 4, imaginative play becomes interactive and complex, as children begin to assign roles and create rules.
Pretending creates a host of benefits, which are even more powerful during collaborative play. Here are just a few.
- Increased social and emotional skills – The most obvious of these is empathy. Children are by nature egocentric. Pretend play allows them to step into another person’s shoes and see the world through someone else’s eyes. (Even across species. My friends and I used to pretend to be escaped chimpanzees.)
- Enhanced language and communication skills – When children take on different roles, they often find themselves having to express unfamiliar concepts, such as the worry of a mother for a sick child.
- Improved problem-solving skills – As children invent more complex narratives, they may have to overcome obstacles. How will the prince get across the moat? How will the princess outwit the troll?
- Feelings of empowerment created by assuming adult roles – By pretending to be moms, dads, doctors, police officers, or other adults, children can step outside their positions of vulnerability and try on the mantle of someone who is strong and in authority.
- Ability to learn from mistakes in a safe context – By trying out various alternatives to a given situation, children can experience the consequences of multiple decisions, some good, some bad. This can help them learn to predict a variety of outcomes and troubleshoot options for when things do go wrong.
In an article called “The Power of Pretend Play,” Scholastic.com says, “Young children’s capacity and eagerness to engage in increasingly complex pretend play are vital signs of healthy growth — emotionally, socially, and cognitively. What’s more, children between the ages of 3 and 5 who cannot pretend, who do not engage in imaginary play, are very likely to face developmental troubles in some or all of those spheres. Dramatic play is not, as some parents and teachers fear, a waste of time; in fact it is the best predictor of a child’s capacity for creative thinking and future social success.”
So how do you encourage creative play?
First, when playing with children, we should be careful to let them take the lead. Encourage them to play together and to explore various scenarios. Use questions to help children discover ideas on their own. Encourage brainstorming (such as unusual ways to use a common household item) and be open to new and even offbeat ideas. Provide open-ended toys and games, rather than prescriptive ones. Here are some items you can provide to encourage creative play:
- Prop box with costumes, pots and pans, masks, wigs, hats,
- puppets (or materials for making a variety of puppets)
- flannel-board sets
- art and craft supplies (such as scissors, glue, craft paper, glitter, cloth scraps, wiggly eyes, paper plates, pipe cleaners, modeling clay or air drying clay, etc.)
- paper and writing material
- miscellaneous role-playing items and story-starters (like old coins, postcards, menus, phone books, catalogs, photos)
- musical instruments (toy or real)
The possibilities are limitless.
Where We Come In
You are your child’s best teacher, but we can help by giving you recommendations and reviews of creative play toys and materials. We’ll also provide articles and activities to give you inspiration and encouragement. You can find them on our blog, where we’ll continue to add new content. Let us know if there’s something you want us to add, and we’ll do our best to do it.
*Note: Some of the links to items featured and reviewed are affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission on items purchased through those links..