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Learning Through Imaginative Play

We are all born with innate abilities and senses such as no fear, not knowing right from wrong, and a sense of innocence and truthfulness, but as we get older these attributes are diminished by our interactions with the people and the world. We learn what is right and wrong, we learn what we can and cannot play with, and we learn about truths and untruths, but imaginative play stays with us forever in one form or another.  

Team Leader of Bass Valley Children’s Centre Sharyn Holmberg understands this concept well, and its importance in early childhood development. “We are all born with the concept to indulge in imaginative play but whether it is scaffolded will depend on how long each and every child has the pleasure of experiencing this wonder,” Sharyn explains. 

So, what is imaginative play?

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a scientific definition of play but to paraphrase: Active play is when a child slides down a slide or climbs a tree, but imaginative play is the ability to use materialistic resources (eg, a doll, a stick, or a box) as well as cognitive concepts to see what is not there. Sharyn says it is to “engage in a play that is all of their own, with no rules or guidance from others. It is purely what they want it to be.”


It is difficult to say what children do through imaginative play because as Sharyn explains, “it is not in our thoughts until the child engages us in the story in their mind, and until this time we watch or listen with amazement of what we may be told.”

So yes, supervising adults can identify that imaginative play is happening but they are not an active participant in it. This is the wonder of a child’s endless curiosity and children love to role play and act out stories or ideas using their imagination. “Children will recreate what they have seen and experienced,” Sharyn says, “there is no limit to what imaginative play can lead to.”

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why is it important?

There are many benefits to play-based learning but when children are using their imaginationthey are developing their cognitive skills by using both learnt and observed images. Sharyn explains, “children are also developing their social skills through play, which in turn helps to develop their language skills. They are developing their own thought processes by having to think about the sequence of events in which things happen.  

“They are developing their numeracy skills, depending on the play, and finally, they are developing skills to self-regulate their emotions because they may be crying, laughing, yelling or creating physical expressions on their faces.” 

can it be encouraged?

Imagination begins at birth, and it can be encouraged. For example, when you watch a baby under a play gym or lying in their cot, they will be talking to themselves and babbling happily. This is where it all begins, their minds are already thinking of things and seeing things that we are not aware of, says Sharyn. So parents can encourage imaginative play by setting up areas to entice a child’s imagination. 

Simply putting pencils and paper out can entice children to draw whatever they like, and then a story can lead on from being asked open-ended questions (questions that need a bigger response than just ‘yes’ or ‘no’).  

Sharyn recommends having a sand pit with natural resources available for their leisure and just letting the child lead the play. “Children don’t need anything to begin imaginative play, it happens when the child’s mind wants it to. Parents can nurture this by engaging and exploring alongside their child and encouraging them to believe in what they are doing,” she says.  

additional resources about imaginative play

The Importance of Pretend Play: Imagination-driven play builds your young child‘s developmental skills by Scholastic. 

Imagining, creating and playing for toddlers by Raising Children. 

Sociodramatic play (interacting with others) by Department of Education’s Literacy Teaching Toolkit 

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