Imagination and Play are Essential to Healthy Childhoods, by Brenna M. Hicks PhD

Have you taken time lately to witness your child’s imagination at work? Just stood and observed as creative play unfolded in front of you, without prompts or coaching? Children at play are in their most natural and happy state. Through your child’s play, you can witness the development of character and personality, problem solving and self-confidence. An added bonus, your child will communicate with you through his imagination and playful experiences in ways he may be unable to do verbally.

Is your daughter feeling badly about a child who is bullied? She may use her imagination to create scenarios that allow the underdog to emerge victorious in the sea of her stuffed animals. What about your son’s feelings of stage fright for the upcoming play at school? He may rehearse his lines in front of imagined or toy army men to feel more comfortable. Children may never tell you when they are worried, but their play will.

The benefits of play and imagination have been well documented in research. Here are some reasons why playing with your children is critical to understanding them and nurturing their healthy development.

The Language of  Imagination and Play

If you have ever tried to ask your child questions about his or her feelings, or experiences at school, you likely have been met with one word answers or, “I don’t know.” While these answers can be frustrating to parents, from your child’s perspective they are accurate. Children do not have the ability to reason abstractly until they become pre-teens. Therefore, if you want to understand what is happening in your child’s world, playing with him or her is one way to do so. Children are likely to share and talk when their imaginations are active and when they are engaged in fun, playful experiences. Toys are their words, and play is their first language.

Play Expands a Child’s Emotional Vocabulary

Children are often frustrated and confused by their emotions, especially since feelings tend to manifest themselves in the body as physical symptoms. Children do not understand what they are experiencing, nor do they have words to express those feelings. Playing with your children helps them develop an emotional vocabulary, as you help them identify their feelings and put them into words. So, your child jumps up and down cheering because she gets to play ball, and you tell her, “You seem excited!” This lets her label excitement for future communication with you and others.

Unleashing Imagination through Play

When children are given the opportunity and permission to play, they unleash their imagination and creativity. Play time provides every type of problem to solve, every difficult scenario that they face, every conflict that will emerge. It serves as a practice for real life, without the typical consequences and risks. As they work through these topics, they are required to use their imagination, creativity, and inventiveness. They practice being collaborative and diplomatic. . The more freely children are encouraged to play, the better they are able to access their imagination and immerse themselves in the fantasy and fun of play time.

Imagination Improves Coping Skills

One fascinating aspect about play is that even if children’s real circumstances do not change, play affords them an opportunity to understand their stories in meaningful and helpful ways. . For example, a child may not be able to bring a loved one back to life, but she can use her imagination to play house with grandpa, pretending he is still alive. This playful experience can help her cope with loss and develop new language to express her emotions.

Your child may not win the spelling bee at school, but he can use his imagination to award himself a medal during playtime. By dealing with issues through play, coping skills increase and self-confidence in the ability to handle emotional let-downs grow. These are things you may not be able to offer help with as a parent; but by participating in your child’s play, you will witness the process unfold in front of you as your child ramps up his capacity to deal with difficult situations.

Imagination and play are essential aspects of healthy childhoods. During play, kids feel safe, content, and competent. By entering into the world of a child at play, you are given access to feelings, thoughts, desires, and wishes that might otherwise go unspoken. As a witness to your child’s play, you will gain insight and understanding about what matters to your child. Even better, you just might be invited into the play, and can experience your child’s world for yourself. Either way, you and your child can enjoy a new, meaningful method of communication!

Published: May 4, 2016

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