In the world of your toddler or pre-schooler, simple items or situations can provide all the inspiration your toddler needs to fire up his imagination and play – a tea towel becomes a superhero cape, a sofa – a mountain. What’s more, creative play is good for her – boosting language skills, problem-solving and empathy. ‘Young children can slip incredibly easily into the world of let’s pretend,’ says Julia Deering, author of The Playful Parent: 7 ways to happier, calmer, more creative days with your under-fives (HarperCollins, £10.99). ‘Not only can they readily imagine they are everyday objects, plants, animals or characters, they can then switch easily into play mode. So they could be a building, a tree, or a tiger and ‘go-to-the-shops’ or ‘take on the baddies’ quite happily.’ Here, Julia suggests ways to boost your little one’s imagination and have fun to boot...
1 Start with a box
Isn’t it always the way that your toddler is far more interested in the cardboard box than the toy inside it? So next time you have a spare box – nappy boxes are a good size – give it to your little one and encourage her to imagine herself in a boat or car. Even small boxes are great for creative play as your baby will love putting items into it, or banging on the bottom of it like a drum.
2 Playing shops
This is a great game to play if you’re out and about and really encourages your child to use her imagination. Explain that you’re in an ice-cream or cake shop and would like something to eat. Your toddler can serve up different flavours or dishes, miming scooping the ice-cream, handing it over and taking money. It works equally well for hairdressers, restaurants and shoe shops.
3 Teddy-bear’s picnic
A blanket makes the perfect base for a tea party. Encourage your toddler to set out her favourite teddies, dolls or figurines along with a few cups and she’ll love pretending to give out food, eat cupcakes and sip drinks.
4 DIY dress-up
Dressing up doesn’t have to involve expensive shop-bought outfits (you’d never be able to track down a Frozen dress anyway), instead use items you’d normally take to the charity shop – scarfs, hats and t-shirts. Your toddler will love imagining herself as a different character, even if she’s just pulled on one of your old shirts.
5 Try animal charades
This is a simplified version of the classic, after-dinner game. Instead of miming words and syllables of films, books and TV shows, this pre-schooler-friendly game sees you taking it in turns to mime an animal such as a pig or cow. You’ll probably need to use sound effects to help your toddler along.
6 Go cloud watching
If you find yourself relaxing in the garden and your toddler is having a relatively quiet moment, he might enjoy cloud watching. Encourage him to look at the shapes and imagine what animals they could be, or what might live in the clouds.
7 Make a den
A couple of chairs with a blanket draped over it, or an old clothes horse with a sheet on top makes the perfect hideaway for your toddler to play. Add some books, teddies or just some plastic containers and boxes and it could help transform it into a whole new world for your toddler – a car, spaceship, submarine…you get the idea.
8 Designate a doodle area
A box of chalks and your patio can provide the ideal space for your pre-schooler to make her mark. If you’re stuck indoors, stick up some large pieces of parcel paper on the wall so she can get creative with the crayons (although make it clear that these are the only spots where she can draw to make sure she doesn’t ruin your wallpaper).
9 Put on a shadow puppet show
A simple game that will really boost your toddler’s imagination, all you need is a lamp shining onto a blank wall. Make some fun shapes and animals with your hands and then encourage your toddler to join in and create a story around them.
10 Sculptures for small people
Play Doh or plasticine can be a useful activity to keep your toddler busy while you’re cooking dinner. Ask her to make a version of the dinner she’s going to eat – carrots, peas, chips – using the play doh. Alternatively, you can get her to model the family or your house.