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Playtime Tips: Imaginative Play

Playtime Tips: Imaginative Play

 Imaginative play toys help children learn about the world around them. This involves playing with toy versions of real-life or fantasy objects (e.g., play foods, cars, figurines, dolls, dress-up clothes, etc.) They can also be open-ended toys that children reimagine as different objects during their play.

We love imaginative play because it creates a safe space for children to practice acting out everyday scenarios, share and explore their feelings, problem-solve, think creatively, and cooperate with one another. Imaginative play starts at around 18 months and engaging in this type of play is beneficial for every age (including you!).


Develops: 

  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Language acquisition
  • Fine motor skills
  • Gross motor skills
  • Social-emotional skills

Play Prompts: 

Try these tips to add challenge, simplify, or switch up how your child engages with imaginative play. Bring in the whole family by simplifying for younger siblings or stepping it up with older siblings!


Simplify (pre-imaginative play stage):

  • Observation Station: Observe first. Watch how your child plays with the toy (there is no one right way!). This will show you their understanding and allow you to follow their lead based on interest and ability. 
  • Toy Versus Real Life: If your toy has a ‘real-life version,’ have your child interact with both and talk to them about how they are the same. Share photographs of toys like animals and vehicles (e.g., take the toy banana and compare the toy banana to the real banana to help children make the connection). Describe the toy by its shape and color. Let your child tactically play with it. 
  • Sorting Basket: Put the toy(s) in a basket with some other objects (toys or household objects) and help your child sort the toys in the basket by toy type (e.g. put all the animal figurines in one pile and the blocks in another). Make it part of a clean-up game to practice cleaning up! 
  • Hide and Seek: Use these toys to build your child’s understanding of object permanence. Put the toy under a blanket and reveal it to them or have them pull it off. 
  • Mimic Me: If your child is beginning to engage in imaginative play, have them practice mimicking activities you do (e.g. cook, clean, brush teeth, go shopping). Ground the imaginative play in real-life events before adding the imaginary/fantasy element. 
  • Play Plan: If your child is unsure about imaginative play, create a plan with them before beginning. Will they act out a story or a scenario? Give them a story prompt by naming a setting and adding an element of surprise. “You are at the (setting) and all of a sudden (event) happens!”

Step up:

  • Jargon Jar: If your child is playing out a specific scenario (e.g., store, school, space, animal habitat, underwater), teach them 3-4 new vocabulary words from that setting. Challenge them to use the new words.
  • Plot Twister: In the middle of an imaginative play session, call out ‘plot twister’ and change part of the plot. Examples: Time travel, treasure chest found, enter ‘bad guys,’ object coming to life, hidden power reveal, a new character appears. 
  • Character Swap: In the middle of an imaginative play session, switch roles with your child. Have them try calling a ‘swap’ as well!
  • “This is a…”: This activity is similar to a popular improvisation game that actors play. Have your child take one of their imaginative toys and reimagine it as something else. Then pass it to a partner to recreate it as something else! Act out the reimagined prop! Example: This is a telephone! This is a banana! This is a boat! 

Spinoff: 

  • Sir Namelot: Have your child name the toy. This will help them more readily identify the toy they want to play with. Creating personalities with toys is silly and can increase joy and creativity.  
  • Make-Believe Land: Create a space in your house that is ‘make-believe land.’ When your child steps in, the space transforms!
  • Movie Adaptation: Read a book and then have your child act out the ‘movie version’ of the book. Encourage them to use props and stuffed animals for other characters. 

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