Photo by Lisa Jay

What has happened to me?  At the moment I spend about 50% of any given day making inanimate objects talk.   It doesn’t matter what activity I do with Birdy, whether it’s play-dough, swimming or playing with dolls, within the first minute or so she will say to me, “Mum, can you make the frog talk?  Mum, can you make the penguin sing?  Mum, can we be mermaids?”

The first time your child engages in symbolic or imaginative play it’s soooo endearing.  I don’t know if you remember the first time your child fed a dolly, or turned a toilet roll into a telescope, but I remember thinking, “Wow, my baby is turning into a real little person.”  It was like a whole new world of play was opening up to us.

Now I’m totally over it.  The other day, when Birdy was in the paddling pool I spent an entire hour simulating a fictional conversation between a fish and a baby boat.  (I was the fish, she was the boat!)  At the end of the hour I was exhausted.  I was tempted to say, “Let’s go inside and watch TV”, but she would have happily kept playing out the fish/boat drama all afternoon.

The thing is, I know that this kind of imaginative free play is really important to children developmentally.  So much so, that some early childhood experts are expressing concerns that kids are spending too much time in structured activities and not enough time in free play.  The reason it’s so important is that we now understand that the early childhood years are formative years, in which future abilities for self-expression, problem solving and communication are developed.  In play, kids can use their imagination to solve problems, to understand different social roles by acting them out and to learn and practice self-expression.  (If you have trouble understanding how kids can learn through play, try this simple exercise.  Roleplay your child’s bedtime routine, but you play the child and let your child act as the Mummy or Daddy.  You’ll soon get an insight into how your child perceives your parenting role.)

So how can you encourage imaginative play?  Here’s a few tips.

–       Create a nice play area but don’t have too many toys available at once.  Cubby houses and other special places can also encourage children to create their own worlds.

–       Limit time spent watching TV, playing computer games and other noisy, flashy, over-stimulating toys in which a child’s interaction is limited to just pressing buttons.

–       Spend time telling stories, both from books and from real life.

–       Try not to interrupt your child when they are involved in imaginative play.

–       Get outside and into nature – sticks, stones, shells and sand can be the best playthings.

–       Provide open-ended toys that can be used in more than one way.  Like farm sets, tea sets, blocks, train sets, dolls, hand puppets.  And try not to correct or limit your child’s interpretation of those toys.  (If they say the teacup is a swimming pool, then let it be a swimming pool!)

So, it turns out I’m not wasting my life by spending half my day as a talking fish.  There is more at stake.  Like, my child’s whole future.

Do your children engage in imaginative play?  How have you encouraged them to be creative?  What are their favourite scenes or stories to act out?  Has there been a particular toy or theme that has captured their imagination?

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