How to nurture imaginary play?

by | Mar 8, 2021

Because children learn through imaginary play, it’s important to encourage this kind of play, writes Dr Jo-Marie Bothma, clinical psychologist and play therapist.

There are two words that can open up all kinds of worlds for your children: “Just pretend …” With those two words your children can take themselves on the most extravagant adventures, without leaving the house, and it’s a crucial part of their play, because when they use their imaginations they are learning all kinds of skills.

So, how can you play along, and help to nurture that creative spirit in them? Here are some things to consider.

Imaginary friends

Some children get so caught up in their pretend play that they create an imaginary friend. In general this is regarded as normal and a healthy part of childhood play and should not concern parents. In fact, most children understand that their imaginary friends are just pretend.

These pretend friends may take the form of an invisible friend or animal, or even something fantastical, and may provide children with friendship, support or entertainment. Imaginary friends are usually associated with young preschool-aged children up to the age of seven and are more likely in girls. Children usually grow out of it naturally and without any coercion from their parents.

It is absolutely acceptable for parents to ask their children about this friend and learn more about your child’s interests and how this imaginary friend plays a role in your child’s life. This special friend might help your child to make friends more easily or comfort them when they are sad or alone.

It is also appropriate to play along if needed and offer the friend a place at the dinner table. If your child or their pretend friend becomes demanding or causes problems, it is important to set boundaries like you would in any other real-life situation.

Most imaginary friends are kind and friendly. If some of them are scary, frightening, disruptive and aggressive, or rule-breakers, and the normal setting of household boundaries does not seem to control the little newcomer, it is advisable to seek professional help for your child. Children may use imaginary friends to express their out of control feelings and therapeutic help may then be of value.

A nurturing environment for imaginary play

Play comes very naturally to all children. We do not need to do much to foster a healthy environment where this is encouraged. However, some modern day traps can make it more difficult for children to engage in imaginative play.

Inspect the list below and try to minimise the impact by adjusting views and circumstances in your own household.

  • Too much screen time tends to harm a child’s instinctive ability to play.
  • Children should be offered a space somewhere in their rooms or in the house (outside or inside) where they experience an open invitation to play. Sandpits and outside tree houses are wonderful ideas if you have enough space. Organise their existing toys in such a manner so that designated areas can become an art corner or a kitchen nook, an airstrip or a carpool.
  • With some children still not back at schools and most extra-curricular activities being cancelled, there seems to be more opportunity to get absorbed in play again. Use it wisely, and rest assured that your children are still benefitting cognitively and physically by just playing.
  • Choose your words wisely and do not talk to your children in such a way that they believe their play is a nuisance or foolish in some way. Scolding them for taking up space while climbing over the built trainset in the hallway sends out the message that they are busy with something you find useless and annoying.
Imaginary play during the current pandemic

Imaginary play can be particularly helpful during the current pandemic. Children can make use of objects to represent the virus, or assign themselves roles relevant to the current worldwide situation and then act them out.

It may seem very simplistic, but this form of play pushes back barriers of reality and makes it possible for a child to process different perspectives about how their lives have changed. The possibilities are infinite.

Children can play about frontline medical workers who are taking care of sick people, people or animals who are sick, children going to school and daddies going to work, and families who are staying home and feeling worried, angry, sad, and frustrated.

What can be difficult to explain verbally or impossible to understand cognitively, can very much be played out imaginatively or symbolically and help a child to make sense of their experience. Through this make-believe play, a child will be able to express positive and negative feelings about the current situation and learn how to regulate or modulate the effect of these emotions.

Guest Editor: Bailey Schneider
Guest Editor: Bailey Schneider

I must admit that having my 2 small boys has turned me into a kid again and my inner child is so happy at getting to play! We play pretend all the time and I’m glad to see the imaginary friends are a normal, natural thing. My 3-year-old turned all his stuffed animals into his “ pretend best friends” – especially during Lockdown 2020, when he was getting almost no kid interaction from being at home all day long. That’s disappeared since returning to school.