I've been talking a lot with people lately about the importance of imaginative play in a child's development. I've found myself taking the stance that, while overtly educational toys do have a benefit, they don't provide everything a child needs for well-rounded development.
Play is an important aspect to a child's well-being, and I'm certainly not the only one who thinks so. The National Association for the Education of Young Children published a list similar to this entitled 10 Things Every Parent Should Know About Play, in which they stress the important building blocks that are being developed when a child's imagination is working.
Without further ado, let's jump right in.
1. Cooperation: It's no surprise that board games or playing with toys requires cooperation and taking turns, but the levels of cooperation necessary to make believe often go under-appreciated. When children make believe together, they are learning loads of things - they are recognizing reality, figuring out how their own imagination can alter that reality, AND learning that not only do their friends have their own individual imaginations, but that their imaginations have different effects on the game they are playing. Imaginative play requires a meeting of the minds while children work out how to sync their play world with each other to create a harmonious game.
2. Problem Solving: This is something I've talked at length about with people recently. Letting your child use their imagination promotes stronger problem solving skills down the road. There is a stump in our backyard; a big, burly, sideways thing left over from a storm that had come through and knocked the tree down. When we were discussing putting an offer on the house, the realtor asked if we wanted to write the removal of the stump into the offer. She laughed when I told her to leave it, and asked why I would do that.
"Think of all the things that stump could be!" Was my reply. My children have made it a mountain, a ship, a barricade, a fort, a lookout rock, and so much more. Giving children a basic structure and allowing them to flesh out the rest for themselves sets them up to develop stronger problem-solving skills down the road. Why? Because they learn to see things differently and think outside the box.
1. What's on your child's mind: imaginative play is a massively useful form of expression for children, though at times it can seem more like speaking in code. When you take the time to sit down and play with your child, you begin to learn their "play language." You can key into things they like, things they don't like, things they may be worried about, or things they are having trouble understanding, even if your child isn't ready or isn't able to cognitively understand or express those things to you directly.
3. Earth Sciences: This may seem like a stretch, but you may be amazed at what a child learns about the world around them, just by playing outdoors. Years ago, I found information on making a discovery garden for kids. I wish I could find a link, or even the name of the group that published the information, because it was fantastic. The idea was sectioning off a portion of your yard or garden, filling it with dirt, keeping spades or buckets at hand, laying down wood planks, etc. While it sounds like making a mini-junkyard out of your garden, the intent was providing a space for children to explore and discover on their own. Turning logs over to find pill bugs, digging for worms, planting seeds, watching squirrels bury their quarry are all aspects of discovery for children while they play. I joke with my husband that a yard only needs a good stump to climb on and a pile of dirt to dig in, and your child will be entertained for hours.
4. Trust Themselves: Play is an opportunity for children to push their boundaries, to try on different personas, make different decisions, and experiment with different situations in a safe environment. All of this builds confidence as children develop a sense of identity and trust in who they are and what they want to be.
2. How your child communicates: My daughter loves art, so we make time to "do projects" together. My son loves board games and puzzles, so we make time to play with those. I learn so much about my children in how they communicate. My daughter is a tweenager now, so she's teaching me the slang in her school (totes adorbs!). My son's reaction to everything is to make sure he's not passing me on the board game to hurt my feelings, it's just the dice told him to move. Knowing how my children communicate on their own territory is so important to me as a parent. Often, I think adults forget that children are individuals with their own styles and perceptions on communication, and so much is lost because of this. I know how to effectively address my children and talk about things with them - even tough things or uncomfortable things - because I've taken the time to learn what they are receptive to.
5. Effective communication: just as playing with your child lets you learn how they communicate, imaginative play allows your child to learn communication within different contexts. Putting a baby doll to bed will look and sound different than evading space invaders. Playing school will be different than fighting dragons. Children develop different methods of communication for different contexts - a skill that is valuable outside of play in any walk of life.
6. Logical reasoning: It seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it, to say that playing wizards and dragons develops logical reasoning, but imaginative play helps children develop basic cause and effect relationships, helps predict outcomes and reactions, and ultimately can help promote forethought.
3. Your Blind Spots: We all have them; things we take for granted as just being the way they are, that we never bother to pass on to our children, because to us, it's so inherent. I was always a very compassionate, empathetic child. My son is the same way. My daughter, on the other hand, isn't. It's been something we've had to work on to develop - often through play. Though things like a lack of empathy might be more obvious to a parent or those in your child's life, playing with your child may open your eyes to other blind spots you never knew you had. I had always assumed my son just didn't like art all that much, until the day he told me that he wasn't good at art - or at least, he thought he wasn't, because I never told him his pictures were good. Now, surely I'd told him I loved his pictures, or that they meant so much to me because he drew them, or that I was so happy he'd drawn a picture for me, but that was not interpreted as "This is a good picture, and you did a good job making it." Learning how my child interpreted what I said helped me to identify one of my own blind spots and correct it, to be sure my child was getting the encouragement and acceptance he was looking for.
Imaginative playing encourages your child to make mental connections!
How often have you heard a child complain "When am I ever going to use this!?" in class? Personally, I whinged about math as a child. I met a grown adult who thought history shouldn't be taught in schools, as she found it useless (she was a teacher, and I was terrified by the idea).
Now I don't promise that imaginative play will erase these complaints, but the act of play DOES trigger connections in a way that simply sitting in class, or playing math-centric or history-trivia games can't. When your child pretends they are a pioneer, they are making connections to the effect history has had on the way we live. When a child makes a pretend grocery story or restaurant, they are making connections to math skills, literacy, and more.
In this world where the good parent is often deemed the one who has provided the most educational games or directed learning to their children, it's important not to overlook the absolute necessity of allowing a child all the benefits of an imagination.