Why imaginary play is so important

December 6, 2012 | Posted in: Early Learners

My oldest daughter was convinced when she was little that she was Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Many of the popular animated movies at the time scared her too much to make it through the first five minutes, yet she was enthralled when her heroine faced off against the Wicked Witch of the West.

By default, her younger sister was Glinda, the Good Witch. Their playtime frequently involved them acting out Oz-like scenes, and bedtime stories featuring Dorothy and Glinda accomplishing various tasks (gymnastics and horseback riding, to name a few) were the most-often requested.

My son was Spider Man. I’d like to say “thought he was,” but there was no doubt in his mind that he could easily transform into the amazing arachnid. He would scale the walls with spider-like ease. His dad and I were the only ones who noticed that his feet never left the ground – but we didn’t bother telling him that. He might have trapped us in a web.

The stories our children created in their minds were very real. And the magic we witnessed was all part of their brain development, when the idea of “hey, wait a minute, that couldn’t really happen” wasn’t even a glimmer of a thought.

Preschoolers use the knowledge they gained as babies about the world around them (through taste, touch, sights, sounds, smells) and combine it with their imaginations to create fantastical stories about why and how things work. As they get older, they will begin to tweak their thinking. They will learn the difference between what is possible and impossible, and understand that something they feared – such as the monster under their bed – cannot be real.

But for now, imaginary play is an important part of child development. It helps young children role-play, problem-solve and sort through a host of intense emotions – a necessary step as they learn self-control and how to handle the frustration that goes along with it.

The holiday season is an ideal time to encourage and spark their imagination. How?

Go with the flow. If your child tells you he wants to be a reindeer when he grows up, suggest he practice “flying.” Help him create antlers out of cardboard, and let him jump around the room. Ask, “Is that Vixen or Donner next to you?” and “What’s it like to fly so high?” Better yet, join in as a companion reindeer.

No batteries required. Dolls, racecars, blocks, dress-up sets – those “old-fashioned” toys – spark imaginative play and make great holiday gifts. Books, too, are a good option. Feed your child’s imagination by reading together. Got a book about snowmen? Ask questions such as, “What would you do if you were a snowman?” (One of our favorites is Snowmen at Night? by Caralyn Buehner.)

Limit screen time. Spending too much time in front of the TV means a child is experiencing someone else’s imaginary world rather than creating their own. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says children over 2 years of age should limit total entertainment screen time to less than 1 to 2 hours daily of educational, nonviolent programs – all of which should be supervised by parents or other responsible adults in the home. (The AAP says children under 2 should not be watching TV or other media, but should instead be engaging in interactive play.)

Don’t over schedule. We all need a little down time, particularly during this ever-so-busy holiday season. Free time encourages imaginative play and helps children learn to use their own resources to entertain themselves.


“How important is play in preschool?” – GreatSchools.org

“Play in Preschool: Why it Matters” – Education.com

“Old-fashioned play builds serious skills” – npr.org

Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since 2011. Prior to that, she spent many years as a journalist in the Boston area. She is rarely subjected to spider webs these days, but has developed a talent for dodging her 8-year-old son’s Harry Potter spells. She is also mom to two teenage daughters who occasionally like to reminisce about their days in Oz.