Posted: Mar 13, 2014 9:00 AM
Structured crafts and family game nights play an important role in child development. Letting kids create their own games and worlds is another way their imaginations, creativity and belief in themselves will grow. An expert talks about the importance of fort building and pretend play.

Kids and world building

Snow days stacked upon each other this January, the air so bitterly cold that playing outside wasn't an option. Extracurricular activities were canceled. Errands were reduced to only the necessities, because bundling up kids with minimal skin exposure became tedious rather quickly. We spent a lot of time inside. I had visions of having to pull out special crafting supplies or dress up as a tap-dancing clown, but a great deal of time passed in a fort made of blankets, my kids talking over each other at times as they constructed a world that was part pirate ship, part schoolhouse and 100 percent their imaginations at work.

Why kids need pretend play

Dr. Joseph Austerman, Pediatric Psychology Specialist at Cleveland Clinic, weighed in on why imaginative play is important for children, especially young children. "Imaginative or pretend play is critical for both cognitive and social development. There is a dearth of evidence for the benefits of pretend play from ages 2 to 8 years old, including enhancement of communication skills and the development of theory of mind — the ability to understand another's beliefs or intentions."

A common concern with many parents is their desire to raise kids who care about the people around them. Dr. Austerman talked about why pretend play can be crucial to fostering kindness in children. He said, "Pretend play is a practicing of social interactions and expression of emotions. These are novel for young children and utilizing this mechanism helps develop a better sense of the world and how to relate to others. Pretend play helps young children develop an understanding of and processing emotions as well as developing flexible problem-solving skills. This can translate into better emotional regulation, cognitive flexibility and empathy."

Six ways parents can foster imaginative play

While some children gravitate to imaginative play, others may need a little guidance before they're comfortable diving into the creation of their own games and scenarios. Dr. Marian C. Fritzemeier, Ed.D, offered concrete suggestions to help foster imaginative play in young children.

  1. Begin by choosing open-ended toys and materials. Items children can build and create anything they dream of are ideal for imagination: old-fashioned wooden blocks, LEGOs, Lincoln Logs and magnetic blocks. One day children make a zoo while another time they construct a ferry.

  2. Another way parents can enhance children's imaginations is through dramatic play. Building forts, houses, hospitals and stores using common household items provides infinite creativity and pretending. Sheets, blankets, pillows, cardboard boxes, stools, chairs and boards are great materials. Children can also imitate real-life events to advance pretend play. For example, if the dog goes to the vet, children can invent a pet hospital at home.

  3. Children also enjoy dress up clothes in adult sizes that you can discover at used clothing stores. Choose items that represent both genders as well as clothes from different cultures. You'll enjoy watching your children try "adult" roles as they express themselves in pretend play.

  4. Games provide another way for expressing imagination. You can also provide children with common game items and ask them to create a new game. "What kind of game can we play with a Frisbee and a ball?" You'll be amazed at how much fun they'll cultivate for your family.

  5. Puppets are a great way to facilitate pretend play and vocabulary. A chair with a towel over it becomes a puppet stage.

  6. Talking to children while they play not only promotes children's vocabulary, communication skills and storytelling, but helps children's imaginations. Suggestions like, "What else can you build?" or "How can you make your store higher?" stretch children's problem-solving abilities and the beginnings of abstract thinking.

The beauty of pretend play

Imaginative play is a lovely way to spend an afternoon because you can incorporate all sorts of activities into their created worlds. Books, art materials and motor-skill games can all play a role in your child's pretend play. Let children lead you — or their siblings — through their world, and you will be amazed by how their minds build such complex and beautiful things.

More about child development

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Talking about gender-specific toys
When is your child ready for PG movies?

Image credit: Julia Wheeler and Veronika Laws/Photodisc/Getty Images