A girl engrossed in imaginative play

Imaginative play

Imaginative play – any game that begins with ‘let’s pretend’, dressing-up and make-believe – is a powerful way for children to learn that our thoughts and feelings may be different from someone else’s, helping them to develop a sense of empathy and emotional intelligence.

Here’s our at-a-glance guide to imaginative play for the under-fives:


Imaginative play with Maileg Princess and the Pea

What is imaginative play?

Imaginative play (also known as pretend play or role-play) is any kind of play that allows a child to explore the world from the perspective of others. Whether it is dressing-up as a doctor and wrapping dolls in bandages, riding the broom around the kitchen noisily shooting baddies, or simply sitting quietly and imagining a story of their own, children playing imaginatively are attempting to understand how life feels for someone else. When two or more children are involved, the value of role-play grows even more as they learn to co-operate with each other in their shared imaginary world.

Dressing up with play silks

What are the benefits of imaginative play?

Imaginative play often centres around themes of good and bad (which explains why superhero play is so popular with young children). Children who engage in plenty of imaginative games and role-play scenarios can often find themselves working through moral dilemmas (should we kill the dragon or just put out his flames? What will happen if we leave the pirates alone on the island?) and are more likely to have a healthy understanding of what is good or bad, kind or unkind, as a result.

They are also more likely to be able to flex and negotiate successfully with their peers, since imaginative play develops empathy and emotional understanding. By walking in the shoes of others, and playing cooperatively in their make-believe worlds, they are able to anticipate and accommodate other people’s feelings more easily. The sick patient at the doctor, the busy mummy in the kitchen, the vulnerable old man who needs help crossing the road and so on.

Language and communication are also supported and developed. As children immerse themselves in their chosen character you’ll often hear them narrating as they go, adding and consolidating new words and ways of communicating to their growing repertoire, from the bravado of a swashbuckling soldier to the quiet timidity of a hungry mouse.

Children also learn to be creative with their available resources. A scarf becomes a wedding dress, a table becomes a cave, the sofa a sailing ship. Being able to re-purpose everyday items for their games lays foundations for creativity and inventiveness later on in life.

What is symbolic play and how is it different?

You’ve probably heard that play is critical for language development. But why is that? Is it simply that play gives children the opportunity to speak and to interact with others? Partly, but it goes deeper than that.

Words are symbols. They stand in for the real thing. So when I say ‘car’, I’m using the word as a label. I’m not presenting you with the actual object. This is abstract thought, and it’s key to language development.

Toddlers like to eat pretend food using a real spoon, or to feed their toys. The props they use for their play have to be real or realistic. But as children get older, they start to use objects that bear little resemblance to the thing they’re trying to represent. A block becomes a mobile phone or the king’s treasure. It is now a symbol.

This explains one of the criticisms of the Montessori approach – real tasks are favoured over pretend ones. The home corner is never turned into the Three Bears’ house or a hotel. So opportunities for symbolic play are limited.

By the time children reach preschool, they are happy to give toys voices of their own and create worlds for them. By four or five, they’ll start to role-play, to take on imaginary personas. They, themselves, have become the symbol.

So you can see, imaginative play is simply a kind of symbolic play.

Imaginative play activities

The best games for imaginative play are invented by the players, so rather than dictate what children should do, make sure there is a variety of props available, then let them get on with it. The everyday environment can be used to support creative development and imaginative play very easily. Some suggestions include:

Scenarios from everyday life such as visiting the doctor, playing house, going to the shops. They could get all the tins out of the cupboard and make a shop, or use empty shoe boxes to make hospital beds for all the teddies.

Take inspiration from the seasons and/or other themes such as circuses or airplanes. If you are stuck indoors and have a well-stocked dressing-up box, create costumes based on the weather or a particular outing you have recently shared.

Small world play goes hand-in-hand with imaginative play, but by nature can be more contained and focussed. If your daughter likes being dressed as a Roman, she could bring a small-world element to her play by building a long, straight road with blocks and making some centurians to march along it. If she is never without her squirrel tail, she could make a forest in a box where she can keep all her acorns and meet other squirrels.

Play food from Oskar and Ellen

Superhero play

Does your child love pretending to be a superhero?

Five years of age is the time of the action figure. Children are exploring big themes, ideas such as good and bad, right and wrong.

But superhero play can be boisterous. There are jumps and bumps and scratches. Baddies are captured or even ‘killed’.

This kind of play is not very nuanced. That comes later. Villains are truly villainous and justice is swift. But that’s OK. It’s a reflection of children’s binary view of the world at this age.

Superhero play

Playing with guns

Visit a nursery or school at playtime and you might hear a teacher say, ‘We don’t play with guns here’. Aggressive play, especially from boys, is believed to result in violent behaviour and war games are often banned. But is this right?

If we tell boys (and it is mostly boys) that they mustn’t play these games, aren’t we saying that we don’t value the things that they do? Aren’t we telling them that there is something wrong with how they feel and how they express themselves?

One solution is to help children see disagreements in less stark terms, to see beyond goodies and baddies. Does Batman have to kill the crooks? Couldn’t he just take them to prison? Is it OK to push the child who took their ball?

By helping our children to see beyond caricatures, we guide them towards more compassionate beliefs and more sophisticated ways of resolving conflicts.

When a battling hero has to choose between revenge and mercy, it can be the most perfect ‘teachable moment’.

If we insist our children ‘play nicely’, what is gained? And what is lost?

To read more about this topic, read the excellent We Don’t Play with Guns Here, by Penny Holland.

The best toys for imaginative play

By definition, imaginative play is an open-ended activity, which requires open-ended toys, props and non-prescriptive items which they can interpret in their own way for their games. We can’t tell you what these should be, every imaginative play session is different from the last, but there are a few staples that seem to get used time and again. Have these around and you’ll never be without he foundations of a good imaginative game or two:

  • Play silks. These simple, colourful pieces of fabric are so versatile. Tie them to wrists for fairy wings, around heads for desert nomads or use on the floor as scenery for a river or patch of land.
  • Blocks. The basic cube can become whatever you need it to, from a racing car to a moon rock. A whole tub of them lets you build a defensive wall or an eskimo’s igloo. The possibilities really are endless.
  • A tent or den. Buy and build your own playhouse or keep it simple with a sheet over the washing line or draped over the kitchen table. And don’t forget the humble cardboard box. However you choose to make it, a den is an instant space for imaginative role-play; a hideout or a cave, a car or a rocket.
  • Play food and tea sets. Acting out the everyday behaviour they see at home is a way of understanding and compounding the world around them. You can just as easily use normal cutlery and tins, but play food and saucepans are often easier for small hands to hold and serve to all their teddies.
  • Costumes. As you know, we love open-ended materials at 100 Toys and nowhere is this more true than dressing up. It’s the reason we created our new range of Adventure Silks (coming soon!). A square of fabric can be turned to almost any purpose.

However, younger children prefer their toys to be more realistic so there is still a role for the good old-fashioned costume. It’s easier to imagine you are the Big Bad Wolf if you look like him. But don’t go too far. Leave some room for improvisation. A simple hat and tail might be enough to get the creative play going.

Final word

Imaginative play is not something you plan; children do it instinctively. But you can create an environment that encourages it, that inspires creative games. And don’t forget to read. Role-play often has its origins in stories that have been shared.

Here are some key points to remember about imaginative-play:

  • Imaginative play can be about seemingly dull or normal activities like having a cup of tea or it can be a fantasy about aliens on the moon. The important thing is that your child is exploring life from a different perspective.
  • Some imaginative play can involve play fighting and war-style games and this is OK. Your child is exploring themes of good and evil, right and wrong. It’s important to be able to do this in a play situation where the consequences are trivial rather than life-threatening.
  • There are no toys that deliver imaginative play, it’s something that comes from your child. But some good props can really help the quality and potential of their play.
  • Themes explored in imaginative play often translate well into small-world play, so when you are worn out from all that sword-fighting, a box of toy soldiers and a castle can offer a quieter alternative.