What is imaginative play? Benefits, ideas and toys

examples of imagantive play

by Bryony Firth-Bernard |

Imaginative play is when your toddler uses their imagination to role-play scenarios. This can be done with or without toys, and your child may act out experiences they’ve seen or would like to experience.

Maybe you’ve witnessed your tot hosting an imaginary tea party with their toys, pretending to be a chef outside making mud pies or using under the table as their 'den'. These are all examples of imaginative play. It’s a wonderful thing to witness and there’s lots of learning benefits that come with it too.

What are the benefits of imaginative play?

Imaginative play provides a whole host of benefits to your child from expanding their social skills to feeling relaxed. It’s even important for brain development, says Brian Sutton-Smith, a play theorist: “Not only are children developing the neurological foundations that will enable problem solving, language and creativity, they are also learning while they are playing. They are learning how to relate to others, how to calibrate their muscles and bodies and how to think in abstract terms. Through their play children learn how to learn.”

Here’s all the benefits imaginative play can bring to your tot:

• It allows them to relax and unwind

• Experts believe it helps to develop their social and language skills

• Boost creativity

• Keeps them active

• Improves problem-solving skills

• Encourages emotional development

Examples of imaginative play to get involved in with your kids

Excited little girl jumping inside a huge Cardboard Box

Chefs - a great idea for the warmer months to get your tot outdoors in the fresh air. Help them whip up mud pies, grass soup and much more!

Have a picnic or tea party - this imaginative play idea can take place either indoors or out (weather dependent). A plastic tea set is ideal, otherwise use some plastic cups. You can also expand the guest list by Inviting along your tots toys too.

Run a shop - children often love getting involved in scenarios where they get to be in an important role. Let your child be the shopkeeper while you act as a series of different customers. Use fake money to purchase different items (use items from around your house, such as fruit, a cup etc)

Play explorers or pirates - a simple magnifying glass and a hunt around the garden is all your little one needs to be the next Indiana Jones. Or if you have a pair of binoculars why not hop onto the sofa and pretend you’re sailing the seven seas?

Use a box - it doesn’t matter if it’s big or small, a cardboard box can become so many things -  a car, a train, a rocket, a house, a present, a pen for animals or even a treasure chest - simply present your toddler with it and let their imagination run wild.

Doctors or firefighters - another opportunity for your tot to take the lead in either of these games. Maybe you already have a pretend doctors kit that you can use, or if not an apron would make a great doctors uniform and you can make a sling from an old jumper. If it's sunny, head on outdoors and get out the garden hose or fill some buckets of water. You little one can spray water over the plants (aka 'the fire') - it's also a great two birds one stone method to ensure your garden gets a good watering.

Imaginative play toys

Thankfully, due to using their imagination, imaginative play does not require you to go out and spend lots of money on toys. As we’ve identified above, household items can make great props to spark your little one’s imagination, even from the simplest of things like a cardboard box.

Related: Role play toys to indulge their imagination

You could also try creating a prop box in your house and fill it with all sorts of items, such as an old phone, plastic cutlery and crockery, toy animals, dressing up clothes and blankets.

Here’s some toy suggestions you can also buy to use as props:

Casdon Tea Set 

Toy Tea Party Set

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This 36 piece plastic tea set is suitable for children aged 3+ and even comes set with some pretend cake, a sugar bowl and milk jug so you tot can host the ultimate tea party.

Learning Resources play money for kids

imaginative play pretend money

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You don't have to invest in a whole till set for your tot to engage in a game of 'shops', some pretend money and household items will do. This money is suitable for children aged 3+.

Children's Doctors & Nurses Hospital kit 

imaginative play doctors kit

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Inside this compact case your toddler will find nine pieces of medical equipment so they can nurse you back to health in no time! We also love that it comes in this case, so everything can be stored neatly away once finished with.

Magic Whiteboard 

imaginative play white board

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Whether it's playing schools or shops, a whiteboard is the perfect imagine play prop, not to mention it's a brilliant for your toddler to practice and develop their writing skills with.

Superhero Capes for Kids

imaginative play superheros

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Your toddler and friends can save the day by becoming their favourite superhero. Inside the pack are six different masks and three capes, which are all reversible, so they have the option of becoming: Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Batgirl, Superwoman or Spiderwoman.

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