Meet my imaginary friend, mom! The benefits of imaginary play

by | Nov 22, 2020

Imaginary play is a common way children learn, writes Dr Jo-Marie Bothma, clinical psychologist and play therapist.

Imaginary or pretend play is one form of play that we frequently find children taking part in. Through imaginary play a child learns to better imagine the world or a certain aspect of the real world. This form of play also adds symbolism to their work. Psychologists often refer to a child’s play as “their work”.

The world of pretend-play helps a child to build on important skills to think out of the box and to get to know themselves better. This knowledge can help to build their confidence in themselves and to deal with the world’s questions in an imaginatively playful and safe way first, before it flows over into real life. It is effective and safe, and children’s overall development is supported through this.

Imaginary play has many benefits. Here are a few vital ones:

Social development

It is rare to find a child who doesn’t experiment with the social roles of life during pretend play. Little dolls sit down for dinner in a dollhouse and playful conversations take place that mimics real life scenarios, for instance.

Imaginative play has a tremendous impact on the development of basic skills that are important for a child’s success with peer relationships. Children learn to co-operate and compromise when they play creatively with their siblings and peers.

Even playing with toy action figures encourages children to practise their social interaction skills and experiment with non-verbal forms of communication such as eye contact, using different tones of voice and expressing emotions.

In play therapy, I have helped many children to learn and practise socially acceptable ways of conversing with friends via playing it out first with dolls and action figures. It can help to build a child’s self-esteem and any child can be a super-communicator (or a hero!), even if it is just for a little while, in a safe space and while they are pretending.

Language development

Learning to speak and pronounce words correctly can be challenging for some. Imaginary play allows for a child to experiment freely with words in their own time without running the risk of being embarrassed if they use the words or syntax incorrectly. Children can even practice a second language that way.

In the beginning phases of imaginary play, very young toddlers only have sounds to direct their play. As this form of play is encouraged and allowed, children will begin to understand how words give them the power to organise their play and to re-enact a story. It becomes an exceptionally powerful method to build a child’s vocabulary and language skills.

Emotional development

Feelings can be completely overwhelming for a child. Pretend play offers a child a medium to express both positive and negative feelings through ‘someone or something else’, like a doll or a puppet, or a plastic animal figure. It creates a safe space to then work through the difficult emotions and to better understand it, before owning the emotions again. Through the ‘figuring-out’-process in play, a child can experience their emotions as less threatening to their inner self.

It is developmentally normal for children to view the world through egocentric goggles. Play helps emotional maturation along, and through pretend play a child will begin to understand the feelings of others. This effectively happens when a child pretends to be different characters while playing. He then has the opportunity to experience being in someone else’s shoes and it can jumpstart important moral development and empathy.

Physical development

Children express themselves through so many different ways while they play. They use their muscles and all their senses. A pretend play shopping scene where money needs to be counted, shopping lists scribbled and plastic food needs to be packed, can quickly change into running after an imaginary thief, climbing over garden obstacles while chasing the culprit and hiding under furniture and in cupboards to get away from the chaser.

Fine motor skills, hand-eye co-ordination, gross motor skills and creative planning all get a good workout during pretend play. I have time and again joined my children in play and then needed to ask my husband to rub sore muscles at the end of the day! Who would have thought it could be such a workout?

Encourage creativity and imagination

A very early benefit of pretend play is its enhancement of a child’s capacity for creative thinking. By absorbing themselves in an imaginative activity, a child is given the opportunity to practise their imagination and to exercise the brain so they learn to think for themselves in a creative manner.

Thinking skills

It is safe to agree that playing together comes with a few hiccups at times. It is tiring for parents and children when a fight breaks out, but these unpleasant situations foster mental growth by creating opportunities to try out new ways of thinking, talking, problem solving and even negotiating. Imaginary play allows a child to face up to a variety of potential issues to resolve.

Needing to share blocks or toys, or moving around in a tight space or having to deal with older or younger siblings at different developmental levels and with different social skills, are all potential learning opportunities. Children will need to hone and use important cognitive skills during moments like those. These are valuable skills that they will use throughout their lives.

If you do not feel comfortable in the way your children handle little disagreements during imaginary play, it offers you the opportunity to jump in and teach them healthier, friendlier or more effective ways of thinking and dealing with these little ‘practice’ challenges.

Get your hands dirty if you find that your child lacks in this department. Climb into a ‘role’ yourself, play along and roleplay a better way of thinking and acting. Actively demonstrating to your children during play how to manage a disagreement offers one of the first opportunities to give the brain a practice run to self-regulate behaviour and emotions.