Encouraging Children to Play Imaginatively and Creatively

Currently, one of the most concerning aspects of raising children is the amount of time they spend in front of screens, whether it is TV, DVD, video, computer, playstation, etc. When children focus their attention onto a screen, it is a very passive form of learning or entertainment. Instead of using their own imaginations to learn about the world and create something, children are passive recipients of visual and auditory stimulation that may or may not require some response using fine motor skills. However, this is a very artificial way of learning about the world and does not engage children in a kinesthetic manner using their entire bodies.

Imaginative and creative play is a more natural way for children to learn about the world and does involve the whole body. Children manipulate and touch various play materials. They express themselves through play both verbally and non-verbally. They use all of their muscles and senses to move around. Actively using their large and small muscles as well as their different senses in play, children develop healthy, strong, and complete neurological connections in their brains.

This article will help parents with some ideas on how to set up imaginative and creative play activities for their children to engage in that will take them away from screens and encourage healthy development.

Types of Imaginative and Creative Play

Children play imaginatively and creatively in various different ways based on many factors such as age, play environment, toys provided, etc. Children can engage in imaginative and creative play by themselves or with others.

Imaginary play happens when children use their imaginations to create pretend and make-believe scenarios. Children can engage in this type of play using small toy figures, puppets, dolls, or stuffed animals for example. Or children can act out a particular role themselves and become a part of a play drama. Often, dressing up and using props will be part of this kind of imaginary play.

Active play happens when children use their large muscles and move around rather than staying in one place. This type of play releases energy and develops coordination.

Arts and crafts, and construction/building play are ways for children to express their creativity, encourages focus and concentration, and develops fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination. It also allows children to feel proud of themselves and gain a sense of mastery after they have created something.

The type of play known as Games with Rules includes board games, card games, and structured sports activities. This type of play becomes important for children as they grow older, especially from ages 6 or 7 and up. With this type of play, the focus is playing by the rules and often involves a winner or loser. There is much less room for a child using imagination and creativity with this type of play because it is structured and rule-bound. (That being said, children can sometimes play creatively with Games with Rules by making up their own rules.) Although Games with Rules play is important for children to learn to deal with competition, rules, and the real world, creative and imaginative play is also very important for children’s healthy development and should not be ignored in favor of Games with Rules.

How Can You Encourage Your Child to Play Imaginatively and Creatively?

To encourage your child to play imaginatively and creatively, set up a safe play space that is child-friendly and stock it with toys that will spark your child’s imagination and creativity (see “Creative and Imaginative Toy Ideas” below).

Children need a clean and organized space for play. This means you will need to organize and set up the play area yourself. It also means you will need to facilitate clean up at the end of playtime and that likely you will be doing quite a bit of the clean up and organizing yourself, especially for younger children. Even though it is important to encourage your child to help in cleaning up the toys, it is your job to provide your child with a clean and organized play space and with the necessary toys and materials for creative and imaginative play.

If your child is playing with other children, your job is to supervise the play. Don’t expect to leave them on their own and that things will go smoothly without your intervention, especially with younger children or mixed age groups. You will need to monitor the play and intervene before things get out of control and tempers are lost between the playmates. You may want to remove certain special toys ahead of time to prevent conflict over this special toy. Monitoring your children’s play is an important job where you as a parent can step in and help children learn problem-solving skills to find a mutually agreeable solution.

Keep in mind however that, you don’t want to be too restrictive and intrusive if your child is playing with someone else. Social play with other children is one of your child’s main ways of learning to interact with others in the world. Allow children to work things out themselves up to a certain point before you intervene. However, you need to intervene immediately if there is any name-calling, teasing, excluding, physical aggression, or dangerous play.

If there are no other children around, your child will enjoy playing with you. Try to keep the play child-directed however and remember not to take over what and how you want to play. Let your child be the director of the play and you are the actor. Play in a role your child wants you to play in and follow directions of what to do. Your child may also want to play on her own so respect her decision if this is the case.

Whether your child is playing with or without other children, he may need some assistance from you at certain times. For example, children may need help setting up a fort with pillows and blankets, gluing or cutting cardboard to make houses or forts, or getting dressed up in a costume. This is why it is important for you to be available and responsive to your child’s requests for help. Usually, children need just a few minutes of your time to get back on track with their play.

You will need to allow your child enough free time to engage in imaginative and creative play either by him or her self, with you, or with other children. This means setting limits around screen time, not having your child over-scheduled with extra-curricular activities, being pro-active in setting up play dates with other children, and being available yourself for play and supervision.

Finally, remember that toddlers need to be supervised closely with small play items, water, playdough, sand, etc. as they tend to put everything in their mouths (or ears or noses!). Play materials suitable for children over 3 years old are usually not suitable to those 3 years and under.

Imaginative and Creative Play Ideas

Here are just a few ideas to help you get going with creative and imaginative play. There are many, many more ideas that you will likely come up with.

Remember that half the fun is setting things up or getting dressed up; the other half is playing out or acting out the various roles and creating the story itself. Stories can be continued from one play session to the next.

Doctor’s Office, Hospital or Veterinary Clinic

Use a play medical kit on dolls or stuffed animals as patients. Or a parent could be a patient. Find something to use as an ambulance. Send patients home with a prescription or a note to come back for a check up. Use a small box as an x-ray machine and draw the x-rays. Provide real bandaids, masking tape (for casts), popsicle sticks (for splints), cotton puffs and kleenex. Towels and facecloths can be beds; laundry baskets can be animal cages.

Medieval Times

Dress up as king, queen, prince, princess, knight, wizard, witch, fairy, elves, dragons, etc. Fun props include swords, shields, magic wands, crowns, hats, capes, and jewelry. Or use small toy figures as the characters. Set up different spots for castles, caves, hiding places or dens. Make up fantasy stories that include good and evil sides.

Outer Space

Dress up as astronauts and aliens. Or use small astronaut and alien figures. Find something to be a space ship. Set up different space stations on friendly and hostile planets. Set up various missions: to explore new worlds, to protect a vulnerable colony from dangerous aliens, etc.


Set up items to sell. Use old wallets or purses. Use something for a cash register and make or buy play money. Write up bills and receipts on small paper. Customers can take items home and set them up at home.

Picnic, Dinner or Party

Invite stuffed animals, dolls, etc. Set up the place settings using plates, utensils, tablecloth, napkins, flowers. Use play food and empty food containers. Or, make food out of playdough, for example make cookies using cookie cutters, birthday cakes with decorations and candles. Find something to use as a stove or oven. Use old kitchen spoons and a pot. Have something unexpected happen such as: a storm comes during the picnic, someone spills the food on the floor, someone unexpected comes for dinner, someone has a surprise party, etc.


Use play food and empty food containers. Or, make food out of playdough. Find something to use as a stove or oven. Use old kitchen spoons and a pot. Set up the place settings using plates, utensils, tablecloth, napkins, flowers. Make up a menu. Use a small memo pad to take orders and to write bills for customers. Find something to use as a cash register and make or buy play money. Roles could be restaurant owner or chef, cashier, cranky customer, happy customer, clumsy waiter, clumsy or messy customer, etc.

Theatre Performance, Music Group or Orchestra

Set up a play or a show. Set up a small theatre or stage using fabric pieces for curtains. Puppets, stuffed animals, or kids can be actors. Create an orchestra with musical instruments. Use stuffed animals or dolls as the players. Someone can be the conductor. Have an audience of people, animals or dolls. Sell tickets to the concert.

Create Your Own Town, Farm, Fort, Space Outpost, Fantasy Land

Set things up on the floor. Use boxes, lego, or blocks for buildings or various structures. Find something to use for fences or barriers, mountains, caves or hiding places, water (such as rivers, lakes, or oceans), trees and flowers. Use cars, trucks, vehicles, airplanes, boats, etc. These can be the settings for unlimited imaginative play scenarios involving various roles such as vulnerable people, dangerous situations (natural disasters) or people (attackers, bad guys, monsters, etc.) coming in from outside, protective and rescue people, mastermind strategists and planners, teams or groups working together cooperatively, etc.

Create Your Own House or School

Use boxes for the buildings. Use a felt pen to draw the rooms on the inside of the box. Parents can cut out windows and doors. Use lego, smaller boxes, or blocks for furniture. Use fabric scraps for carpets, blankets, curtains. Put a family in the house and some children and a teacher in the school. Make an outdoor playground. Create various play scenarios such as a normal day at home or school, conflict and resolution in the schoolyard, moving to a new home, etc.

Make Up Your Own Games

Use items like foam (nerf) balls and a foam bat, indoor bowling set, ring toss, velcro darts, indoor basketball hoop for the back of the door, for example, and make up your own rules with these items. Be flexible and creative with the rules; rules can change and adapt as the play goes along. The idea is not to stick to one set of rules.

Drawing/Craft Activities

Determine where your art area will be and organize your art materials in this one place for easy access. Felt pens and crayons in one container. Glue, scissors, tape and miscellaneous other items in other containers. Have lots of sizes and colors of paper available. The easier it is to set up and clean up, the more useful this area will be.

Messy Play

For messy play, it is important to have a separate area where this messy play can happen, eg. within a plastic tablecloth or on the kitchen floor. Set limits that water, paint, or sand must stay within this area or else the messy play activity gets put away for the day. You may want to save messy play for when you have time to set up and clean up afterwards.

Sand Play: Half-fill a container with clean play sand (or cornmeal, uncooked rice or pasta). Provide cups and spoons. Children may also want to put toys in this container to play with.

Water Play: Use a plastic container and half-fill with water. Provide soap, sponges, facecloths. Dolls can have baths; cars can get a carwash.

Painting and Playdough: Store paints and playdough in containers that can be easily set up and cleaned up.

Creative and Imaginative Toy Ideas

Try to have a selection of toys available for your child from the following categories.

Small Toy Figures and Objects

These can be small figures (plastic, wooden or metal), stuffed animals, puppets, baby dolls, etc. They can be from various different categories such as:

Constructions Toys

Dress-Up and Role-Play Items

Activity Items

Drawing and Craft Materials

Inexpensive Toy Ideas

Remember that secondhand stores and garage sales are good places to look for inexpensive toys.

Boxes can be used for houses, forts, castles, barns, schools, stoves, etc. Smaller boxes, blocks of wood, or lego can be used for furniture, cars, airplanes, etc.

Natural items such as stones and pieces of wood can be used as rocks, fences, vegetation, etc.

Old socks can be used as puppets; sew on buttons, glue on hair, or draw on features.

Copyright Kathy Eugster, 2008. All Rights Reserved.


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Kathy Eugster, MA, RCC,

Pacific Spirit Play Therapy Resources

Kathy Eugster