“But, mom! There’s nothing to do!” I used to hear this complaint on a loop. I can’t be alone here. Our kids often expect us to be their cruise director on top of all our other duties as parents, spouses and adults.
While I love my kids, I can’t help them decide what toys to play with or even how to play each moment of the day. It’s my job to ensure they’re safe, loved and have all their basic needs met.
So, how did I stop the incessant grumbling? Easy. I let them be bored. What does this have to do with imaginative play, and how did it solve the boredom problem? I’m so glad you asked.
When my kids couldn’t rely on me to create games and invent new projects, they had to use their imaginations. Allowing them to be bored for a bit unlocked a whole world of potential right in our home.
Suddenly, their blocks become a sunken city full of treasures to explore, and their stuffed animals turn into mysterious creatures on an exotic jungle safari. Even mundane objects like packing materials and kitchen utensils can play a role in their games.
What Is Imaginative Play?
The basic premise of imaginative play is relatively straightforward. Your kids learn to play with their imaginations rather than relying on technology, toys or other people to keep them entertained. They act out scenarios they’ve seen, experienced or wish they could.
Kids in imaginative play have fun without set rules — other than typical safety ones — and structure. The only limit is their imagination.
If you’ve ever watched an episode of “Bluey,” you are intimately familiar with imaginative play. The games the Heelers come up with require only their imagination, each other and some occasional props. They commit to the fun and roll with the punches — a feather becomes a wand with the power to make things heavy, and asparagus can turn your family into whatever animals you choose.
Why Is It so Important?
Imaginative play ends the whining about not having anything to do, but how is it helping my kiddos in the long run? As it turns out, this form of play helps kids grow in almost every aspect of their development.
Social-emotional skills are how kids learn to interact with others and themselves. Pretending to be other people helps them understand, in a surface-level way, what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes.
Also, when kiddos play with adults or other young children, they learn how to play cooperatively using sharing and teamwork. Kids also observe their own feelings and experience the outward signs of other people’s emotions.
The most apparent developmental advantage of imaginative play is creativity. These two go hand in hand. Kids are free to come up with their own fun when rules and structure aren’t the central focus. These creative skills may help them become better problem-solvers and outside-of-the-box thinkers.
Any activity that gets kids moving can help their physical development. My children develop gross motor skills by soaring around the room to save the townsfolk from evil villains and jumping from pillow to pillow to avoid touching the lava pouring from the erupting volcano. They learn fine motor skills by drawing treasure maps and handling implements in the kitchen of the fancy restaurant in their room.
Language and Communication
It’s easy to understand how kids can develop language and communication skills when playing imaginative games with other people. They must learn to communicate effectively to get their ideas across and understand others.
You may find it surprising that solo imaginative play can be just as beneficial. When your kids pretend to be someone else, they may unknowingly try to match their mannerisms and speech, which gives them a unique opportunity to experiment with language. “Peppa Pig” has my daughter sounding like a little British young lady when she recreates her favorite scenes.
Kids who play without adult intervention must learn how to solve their problems. If they get halfway to the moon and run out of gas, what do they do? Running to mommy isn’t an option when you’re in space — although they could phone ground control.
I also find that playing imaginative games with my kids can turn any fun thing into a learning experience. When we play store, they count the money I give them to ensure I’ve paid properly. They ask me where I hurt when pretending to be doctors. I tell them without pointing, and they identify where to examine me. The key is not to go overboard and make it feel too much like learning. The emphasis should be on fun.
Create an Imaginative Play Area
I have a bin that lives behind my couch full of a random assortment of fun objects. It has scraps of material and odds and ends from yard sales or around the house. From time to time, I rotate out things they’re no longer using to keep things fresh.
You wouldn’t believe the things they come up with. For example, I’ve seen the same piece of material be a sail for a pirate ship, an artist’s smock, a princess dress and the tablecloth at a five-star restaurant — and that’s just this week.
Try setting up an area like this somewhere in your home. Save the boxes your late-night impulse purchases came in or stockpile leftover craft supplies. Take your kids to a secondhand store to pick something that speaks to them. They will be able to create games from whatever you gather — the more open-ended, the better — and you’ll finally end the “I have nothing to do!” argument.