Five Ways to Get Started With Imaginative Play

imaginative play
Noah is two years and 9 months old and suddenly his imagination has gone into over drive.

He has gone from limited and very simple imaginative play such as a making appropriate noises for a toy animal, to creating complex characters and stories at every opportunity. With this imagination explosion, now is the time to start offering him more complex invitations to play and explore his imaginative world.

We love imaginative play around here. It is such a great way for kids to learn and practice so many skills, and it’s so much fun, but if you are new to the world of imaginative play it can be a little hard to figure out how to get started. So today I’m sharing my five best tips for getting started with imaginative play

imaginative play

Start With Something They Know and Love

Children learn best when they are engaging in ideas that they are interested in. They also show longer attention spans and better concentration when they are working on and playing with projects, themes or ideas that they love. So rather than offering children imaginative play scenes that you as an adult think they might be interested in, stop and think about your child – what really floats their boat right now?

Set up a play scene following a theme or idea that your child is interested and that they know really well. Perhaps that is trains, or dinosaurs, or fairies, or wild animals. Starting with something familiar and loved will immediately grab and hold their attention. They will immediately know what to do with that dinosaur (since you’ve read them eleventy-hundred books about dinosaurs) and will quickly and easily fall into imaginative play.

Imaginative Play

Collect a Bunch of Items to Use.

One of the best things about imaginative play is that it doesn’t require lots of special equipment. You don’t need batteries, or fancy toys, you can use toys you already have, or cheap items from the dollar store, with lots of natural materials and recyclables thrown in. The key to being able to set up an imaginative play scene easily is to have a bunch of useful items on hand, so start collecting anything you think might work as you find them.

You’ll need a container or something to put your play scene in or on, characters for your scene and accessories. Here are a few ideas –
Containers – large serving trays, cardboard boxes, plastic tubs, mixing bowls, old towel
Characters – plastic animals, dinosaurs, people/fairy figurines, wooden blocks with faces drawn on them, puppets, soft toys, Lego people, trains, cars
Accessories – pine cones, gum nuts, acorns, stones, leaves, sand, water, wood shavings, sticks, wooden blocks, cardboard, boxes, packing foam, glass pebbles, felt, scraps of material,

imaginative play

Start With Something Simple

When setting up for imaginative play, as an adult, it is tempting to go crazy and set up really elaborate scenes with lots of accessories and characters and ‘cool stuff’. But if you and your child are just starting out with imaginative play it is best to keep it simple, at least in the beginning. Start with a small, open scene, without lots of messy accessories (keep the water till later). Offer two or three characters, and a couple of different accessories. Set the scene with one or two characters and a few accessories so it looks inviting, but leave some neatly arranged to the side so your child can immediately add to the scene themselves.

Imaginative Play

Set up Just for One

Imaginative play can be a great way for kids to practice and develop social skills, but in the beginning, especially for younger children, set up your play scene just for one child. If you have more than one child then set up a scene for each of them. This way they can focus on getting lost in their imaginations and not worry about negotiating or sharing for now. You might set up two play scenes side by side which is a perfect way to begin developing co-operative play – let them play alone, but next to each other, and when they are confident and ready they will start to interact and share each others’ imaginative world.

imaginative play

Let Them Come and Go

If you can, set up somewhere that it can be left for a while. This will allow your child to come and go to the activity. You might find they only spend a few minutes there the first time you offer a play scene, but if you can leave it out all day, you’ll probably find your child comes and goes to the activity off on and throughout the day as they begin to feel more confident and interested in the ideas.

If you set up a fabulous imaginative play scene and your child is completely uninterested and it’s a total flop… don’t be disheartened! Perhaps you didn’t quite find the idea or theme your child is really interested in and motivated by, or perhaps they are busy working on and practicing other skills right now, so trying again in a few months or when you see imaginative play naturally popping up in your child’s play.

You can find more of my posts about imaginative play here.
Do you have a tip or idea to share for imaginative play? Please leave a comment and share.

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Read the comments or scroll down to add your own:

  1. says

    Great tips and strategies Kate…I am loving watching my girls really enter this period now and play with each other. I also like to be able to set things up so they can come and go and change the play as they wish!

  2. says

    This is something I really struggle with but my girls really love. Thanks for the ideas,they’re so simple and easy to put in place. I’m going to try it over the long weekend.

  3. Lucy says

    Just set up a farm play for my son after he caught me reading your latest post. Coloured blocks, his Scheich farm animals and some shredded yellow paper for hay, some blue paper for water and hey presto, a very entertained Ollie!! (who is also 2yrs, 9mths and v imaginative…[and demanding!!) Thank you!!

  4. Gise says

    Hi, nice ideas, but does one (normally) need strategies to get children started on what comes as a natural step in their development? Isn’t it enough for them to have material accessible in their playroom?

    • katepickle says

      It’s not usually the kids who need help getting started but the parents who are unsure what to do. If you read through my post you’ll see all of the suggestions are based on the idea of offering great materials that kids are interested in and letting the kids do the rest.

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