Albert Einstein said 'Imagination is more important than knowledge' and he was spot on, especially when it comes to a child's play. It might be tempting to think imagination equates to worthless or frivolous time wasting but it's an essential tool that your child uses to learn about her world today and as adults.
While it might be easier for you to see what your child is learning when they complete a jigsaw puzzle or read a book, imaginative play promotes a huge range of developmental skills across all ages. These include:
There is one important proviso in imaginative play, regardless of age - that is both boys and girls should engage in lots of healthy imaginative play which is not gender specific.
That is - boys should be given the opportunity to play with dolls, just as girls should be allowed to participate in 'rough and tumble' imaginative play. This will ensure their skills are well balanced.
Most of your child's play will be very functional rather than imaginative. Your child will use a toy or object in the way it is meant to be used, for example, posting a shape into a shape sorter toy.
However, start laying the foundations for imaginative play by introducing non-structured play such as singing songs or nursery rhymes, enjoying moving to music freely and playing peek-a-boo.
Imaginative play is about to begin. Your child's understanding of the real world will allow her to try simple role-play activities and her language will be extended as she 'chats' to her doll or teddy.
It's important you support her play by using positive responses to her chatting. Resist the urge to tell her her 'chat' is silly. Allow her to imagine (for example) that worms can fly planes and horses can drive cars.
Continue to encourage her dancing and singing songs, so your child can begin exploring her emotions . It's also important to provide plenty of opportunities for 'open ended' play, such as sand and water play, painting and playdough.
Your child's imagination will really be unleashed. She'll begin to imitate the daily tasks she sees you involved in, such as cooking and cleaning and she'll also be interested in 'home corner' style play, such as 'being' mummy or daddy.
It doesn't matter which gender role your child decides to follow in their play - it's important she is experiencing another person's role and starting to understand what that may involve. This sort of play also encourages her fine motor skill development during dress ups and hosting a 'tea party'.
Dig through your wardrobe and find some fun dress up clothes such as old hats, shoes and shirts. Dress up play will allow your child to extend her role play and as a result enhance her language skills. As her imagination blooms and she explores dress ups, she'll also be developing her fine motor skills, doing up buttons and zips etc.
Their imaginative play will be enhanced by the first stage of symbolic play. This is simply your child's ability to pretend that one thing is something else.
For example, a wooden block may become a motor bike riding down the road - even though your child is sitting still and only has a block. At around four years, her symbolic play will develop - so that your child won't even need the physical prop to sustain her imaginative play.
Now your child will use her imaginative play to express her feelings and emotions about her everyday life. She'll also explore making her world just as she would like it to be for real.
This is very helpful for children who may be going through a difficult period in their life or experiencing some sort of trauma (eg. separation of parents, or illness). You'll learn a lot about how your child feels about her life by quietly watching her play from a distance.
During this stage, your child may also start to use half-truths in her story making or imaginative play. This is an important development, as it is the first step for your child to learn about the difference between true stories and imaginative stories.
Finally, you'll notice her developing sense of humour. All her imaginative experiences of the past years will help her to laugh about all sorts of funny and 'silly' things - and a sense of humour is vital for her adult life!
Your child's imaginative play will take on a distinct social aspect. She'll be using her imagination to learn about social rules, turn taking, sharing and role changes. Towards seven years of age you'll also see your child's imagination will begin to let her understand and accept that people can have different perception of what a role is.
During this stage, the second phase of symbolic play becomes apparent - which means she will not need to rely on a physical prop for her play. However, she will enjoy playing with cubby houses, puppets, dress ups and making her own creations using large boxes or various arts and crafts materials.
Encourage her extended role play activities like setting up a shop, but don't try and fit her play into what you as an adult perceives as what 'normally happens' in a shop. It's important she uses her own imagination and at the same time she'll be developing her writing, memory skills and self help skills.
Source: © Einsteinz Toy Box (Reprinted with permission of Pru Quinlan)