With so much emphasis on children’s academic performance at school, it can be too easy to forget that one of the best ways for children to learn is through play. Research has shown that play-based education has many long-term benefits, including later success at school. Kids are naturally motivated to play and have active imaginations, so it’s rarely a struggle to persuade them to get involved in imaginative play. Here are some ideas for tapping into your child’s imagination while teaching valuable lessons along the way.
If children witness the adults in their life being caring and nurturing, they will want to emulate that. Playing house can help foster a child’s respect for the household chores they see their parents performing. Plus, it can teach them to take responsibility for themselves and care for others. Finally, playing house introduces children to important domestic tasks, like cooking, that they may not do “for real” until they’re a bit older.
It’s not necessary to have fancy equipment for playing house. Kids can imagine all kinds of household scenarios with their favorite animal toys, some simple accessories, and everyday items they see you using. When you sweep the floor or vacuum, your child may want to have a turn with these props. They might end up making more mess in the process, but let it happen! They’re not doing it to be difficult, and will eventually learn how to use these items correctly.
As well as imaginary house play, you can turn real chores into playtime. If your child has made a mess with their toys, enlist their help—and that of their favorite doll—in tidying up. Count items as your child places them back in a box, so they feel a sense of accomplishment and practice numbers at the same time. You can also turn looking for items under a couch into a game, so kids don’t see tidying up as a tedious chore.
Having a dressing-up box at home allows your kids to experiment with different characters and personas and to act out stories. You can use pre-made clothing and costumes, or use your own old clothes and accessories or lengths of fabric. You can also help kids make masks from a piece of cardboard, some string, and coloring pencils. Ask your child to dress as their favorite movie or cartoon character using the materials you have on hand. They may not end up looking much like Spiderman or Elsa, but giving them the challenge will spark them into thinking outside the box. And, while draped in out-of-the-ordinary clothing, their imaginations will be heightened.
Scrapbooking and creating collages to put up on the wall are great ways to tap into your child’s artistic and creative side. Let them search your garden for interesting objects like a colored leaf, butterfly wing, or sequin. Encourage them to tell you about these objects—not just where they really came from, but where they might have come from. Perhaps the pink sequin fell off Cinderella’s dress, or the butterfly was a fairy’s wing. Help your child create a picture that utilizes these objects to tell a story. You can also give your child some old magazines or catalogs, and help them cut out pictures to tell the same kinds of stories.
Playing store helps kids imagine what it’s like to do an important job. Let your child use tins, containers, packets, or even books to create different kinds of shops. Let them play with real coins. Ask them how much something costs, and encourage them to count out the right amount of change. If you have a calculator handy, show them how to use it to calculate costs. This will likely be more meaningful to them than a straightforward math lesson. Ask kids about their goods—which is the freshest banana? Which is the best book? Have they had a busy day? They’ll be transported into real-life shopping scenarios, thus sparking their imagination.
Kids look up to their parents and other adults in their lives. When you encourage children to emulate an adult’s profession, it’s a fun way to tap into their imagination while teaching them about the world. If daddy is a teacher, ask them to act out what he does when he goes to work. A few simple accessories will help set the scene. If grandma is a veterinarian, help them use toys to role-play what grandma does at work. The possibilities for job role playing are almost endless.
Kids’ imaginations are often more vivid than those of adults. Go with it, and don’t try to rein it in. If you have an idea about what playing house should be like, and your child takes things in another direction, don’t constrain that.
Kids’ play can get repetitive, especially when they enjoy an aspect of the game. This can get boring for adults, but it’s through repetition that we develop skills. You might not see the value in buying a bag of apples in their store and counting out the same change over and over again, but it’s certainly there.
Be careful not to assess creative endeavors as “good” or “bad.” If your child draws a cat that looks nothing like a cat, that’s just fine. They learn through the effort. Similarly, if their attempt at playing store leads to scenarios that you wouldn’t encounter in a real-life store (perhaps a dinosaur running down the aisles?), it doesn’t matter. Instead, let go of your grown-up mindset and let your child’s imagination rule—they’ll learn plenty along the way, and you’ll both have lots of fun.
Written by Elen Turner for Matcha in partnership with Maileg.