How to Encourage Imaginative Play in a Child


Imaginative play does not emerge until a child is about one year old, and continues to develop through­out the preschool years. This form of play has two features that distinguish it from earlier exploratory play. First, a toddler is now able to use one object to represent another. A block can represent a car, a cuddly toy can represent mom or dad. The child can also use herself to represent someone else—for instance, she can pretend to be her mother or a truck driver. The range of potential play situations is infinitely extended. Second, symbolic play frees a child from the here-and-now. The child is not tied to what she can see in front of her: objects, people, and experiences are present in her memory, for her to utilize.

Symbolic or imaginative play develops in progressive stages, although the ages at which children pass from one stage to another vary greatly. The first stage occurs at about one year and involves a toddler using a familiar behavior in a different context—such as when she pretends to feed herself out of a toy cup. The second stage comes at about eighteen months, when she herself is no longer the focus of her pretend play: she will act out imaginary sequences with a doll, or another person, instead of always making herself the center of attention. The third stage of symbolic play comes at about three years, when the child is able to adopt roles in play. Children at this stage like pretending to be other people, whether it is the milkman, their mother, their father, or the doctor. Elaborately designed clothes are not necessary. The dress-up box at home requires only a modest collection of old clothes, a few hats and scarves, some cheap jewelry, a couple of shopping bags—that’s enough for a child to create any character she wants. Young children love to imagine they are someone else.

Symbolic role-play serves different psychological purposes. It provides your child with an opportunity to test out roles she jnay anticipate playing in later life. Your child may wonder what it would be like to be an adult, or to be one of her friends, or to be a television character. Role-play lets your child experi­ence this for herself. You may be surprised when you observe your child playing like this, especially when you see her act out the role of “mom” or “dad.” Your child may take great delight in strutting around, pretending to be a complaining parent, bossing everyone else around. Frightening to think that this is how our children sometimes perceive us!

Role-play also allows your child to release her deeper emo­tions in a socially acceptable way. A young child would nor­mally be reprimanded for being aggressive and shouting at other children. However, when she delves into the dress-up box, puts on a policeman’s hat and starts issuing orders, nobody bothers. Symbolic role-play lets your child release her aggressive impulses without fear of punishment.

This type of play can be called “imaginative” because the child is able to distinguish it from reality. When she is engaged in imaginary play, the child knows that what she is doing is only make-believe. She does know the difference. You probably have seen your child have a raging argument with her friend, and when you have gone over to separate them, they will have greeted you with the reassuring remark, “It’s all right. We’re not really fighting. We’re only playing.”

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About the Author: Alan Kennon lives a very happy life with two kids and a lovely wife. He likes to share his life time experiences with others about how they can improve their lifestyle and personality.

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