With how busy all parents are nowadays, it can be harder and harder to consider the ways in which we can make sure our children have imaginative play time. But the studies all show that free, unstructured play is crucial for the social and emotional development of all children.
It may seem silly, but whenever you pretend to be a monster and chase your son throughout the house, you’re helping him use his imagination, be creative, and work on conflict management strategies. These opportunities for free play are how your child or children can experiment, explore, take risks, and navigate aspects of their different relationships. All extremely important for him in the long run.
Pretend play, though, is becoming less and less common. Many schools have decreased the amount of recess time , and planned extracurriculars or sports team practices/games have replaced any free time.
As busy parents who want to do right by your children, please don’t feel like you need to add another thing to your plate. These are easy things you can do to encourage your child more free play time. Even just making these small changes can ensure your child has what they need to play, and thus, develop the way they need to.
Also remember not to feel pressured to "make" it fun for your child. Let them control it!
Here are 5 EASY ways to encourage imaginative play:
1. Create a play place.
Whether you craft one out of blankets and pillows or get a ready-made teepee, castle, or fort, start by having a dedicated space for play. Give your child or children assorted items to make it “theirs” around whatever narrative they create.
Maybe it’s a fairy castle, a pirate ship that has to be protected by invaders, or just a great place to hole up with a bunch of snacks and some good books. Let them hang out in their space alone, with friends/siblings, and/or with you.
2. Schedule it.
Instead of picking another extracurricular activity to sign up your child for, instead consider blocking that time off every week for scheduled imaginative free time. They could spend that time climbing trees, looking for bugs in the backyard, or hanging out in their fort. You could also take them to the playground or for a hike on your nearest nature trail.
3. Give them items.
Children can make use of anything, so give them anything to get their imaginations going. A large cardboard box. A stick. Tell them to make a game with a bucket, a rubber ball, and a set of legos. Give them some sidewalk chalk and tell them to draw you a picture of a buffalo. Or let them choose for themselves. There should be no excuse for boredom when they can figure out something else to play with.
4. Limit screen time.
It may seem self-explanatory, but free play can’t include sitting in front of a TV or tablet. Your child needs to let their imagination run wild. To get bored and to find something interesting to pass the time. Sitting and looking at a screen takes away a child’s need to explore and experiment. Consider setting a limit of half an hour to an hour of screen time a day.
5. Embrace the chaos.
Many parents will struggle the most with the fact that free play requires accepting a degree of insanity. Your child may want to put all of the pillows on the ground to try to get over the “lava.” You may find legos, string, and crayons in every nook and cranny. Free play means letting them make these choices.
You can always have boundaries. Your kids are only allowed to play freely in certain areas and/or they have to clean up after themselves once they’re done. If you’re a bit of a neat freak, it’ll likely be hard for you to accept, but if you do, you can make it a more enjoyable time for your kids.
Play should be a fundamental part of our children’s lives, but society is getting away from it. We’re too structured. Too busy. Despite that, we can—and should—still make it a priority. It will allow your child to explore and experiment, act our scenarios, and work out issues. It’ll also contribute to them being happier overall, and happy kids means a much happier life.
-Tara Blair Ball