The Case for Imaginative Play: Emotions and Fears

Immy (aged 3 1/2) “teaching school” in the cubby house this week…

“Today we are going to learn about not being afraid of the rain. This is the grey cloud and the rain coming down. There is nothing to be scared of in the rain. It’s just rain.”

- insert short pause -

“And you wear an umbrella. And a raincoat and hat.”

Back in April we were out at the park and got caught in a storm. We had an umbrella but it was honestly no match for the ferocious wind and rain which seemed to appear out of nowhere. Ever since it happened Immy has been more than a little nervous to be out when it is raining. She doesn’t even like the sound of heavy rain on the roof when we are at home.

So when I overheard her teaching her toys to not be afraid of the rain, I was reminded of the importance of imaginative play as a way for children to internalise and understand real life experiences. In this case it is a real fear. At other times it could be working through overwhelming emotions, stress, understanding social conflicts or processing something the child has seen, heard or learned from others.

Having the space, time and freedom to play imaginatively, provides children with a sense of power – they feel capable of being in control, of figuring things out, of thinking things through, of solving problems.

Of course, each child’s preferred style of imaginative play is unique. One child may love role playing in the home corner, another is obsessed with dressing up as a superhero and uses whole body movements for expression, a third re-enacts life experiences with animal figurines, or trains and planes, or dolls, or puppets.

However they choose to play, imaginative play is important and valuable. And this is just one of many reasons why!

How sort of imaginative play or role play does your child most enjoy?

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  1. Thanks for sharing this. Yes, my little one loves imaginary plays too. It seems to focus on kitchen and doll play at the moment. Today, she made a birthday cake for me with homemade play dough and also rolled some candles to put onto the cake. She also loves taking care of her stuffed animals, giving them blankets, read with them and put them to sleep. She will take her little animals to the bathroom and put them in the potty. Today, she made a long roll shape with her play dough and put it in the potty. She told me her bear just went #2. :>

  2. It is so true about space and time for our children, to let their imagination flourish, to let them play freely, as parents, take the time to observe and savor these very precious and fleeting moments. how much can we hold on to?

  3. My oldest son used to role-play with two dinosaur toys, always a Dad and a small boy, doing something fun together. My daughter loves to be the Mum, looking after her dolls and soft toys by reading to them, feeding them, settling them to sleep and dressing them. My youngest son loves to make me pretend cups of tea and feed me! I hope this reflects well on my husband and me – fun parents who feed their kids well!

  4. I was just talking to my mom about this, ans she was saying we used to replay the events of our days when kids just like my daughter does now. I told her it seems like the child’s way of journal writing – a way to process feelings and recount events.
    Right now there is more playing school with her stuffed animals. I think she is trying to prepare herself for the first day of school.

  5. My 3 1/2 year old son role plays all the time with his little Matchbox/Hot Wheels cars. He comes up all sorts of situations and scenarios for them, many have their own names and personalities, and oftentimes he acts out scenarios from our day. And from all the traffic jams he creates, you’d think we’re always stuck in traffic! (Very rarely, but it apparently makes quite the impression on him when we are! We live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so traffic is just part of life here.) I love observing him when he’s in the zone of his own little worlds. Fascinating to see how he processes through things.

  6. Mr 2 likes to use his lego people to talk to each other. And his favourite soft toy – his puppy – gets a lot of stories told to and about him. He also likes to “cook” with anything and everything – lego people are aparently good muffin mix!! :)
    I love his imaginative play!

  7. Oh the things those bears get up to! I’m also guessing that Cheetah (a puppet) helps a lot, but that’s Daddy’s territory. I know when something is going on, by the bears’ behaviour, their latest adventures, and whether Cheetah is driving an army tank or not.

  8. I just love watching my girls in their imaginative play when they think I’m not looking. It’s a good gauge for me too if I notice that the baby dolls are spending lots of time in the naughty spot.

  9. I was a guest in a daycare centre the other day and a little boy wasn’t interested in participating in the drama/movement activities which was unusual for him. Instead he was intent on playing with two cars. He was deep in concentration and then all of a sudden yelled out to the drama teacher “Miss” – everyone stopped and looked and he begun to say that on the way to the centre he had been in a car crash, he explained it in great detail and sat down with a tear in his eye but also with the sense of a weight being taken off his shoulders. His mum had mentioned the accident quietly to the teachers but didn’t want to make a big deal. He had infact been playing it out with the toy cars.

  10. My 2-yr-old is constantly playing with our barn and farm animals. She just loves role playing with them. My 4-yr-old loves our kitchen set best. She likes to set up stores, restaurants, and clubhouses. I’ve really seen her imagination flourish in the last few months and I’m loving it!

  11. Thanks for this post. I agree–it is through imagination, rehearsal and processing that our children learn how to interact with and emotionally respond to very real life experiences.
    Making space in the early-childhood classroom for imaginary play is essential, too. Through somewhat guided improvisational theatre activities and entirely unstructured “free time” in which performance and role play is encouraged, my students negotiate, delight, and discover.


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