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What is imaginative play and how can you encourage it?

Whether it’s an indoor fort made of cushions, a superhero cape fashioned from an old tea towel or the most immense teddy bear picnic you ever did see, imaginative play can allow children to discover their own identities and make sense of the world around them. So here's all you need to know about imaginative play, including the benefits and how to encourage it at home.

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Jul 13, 2021

Toddlers with play kitchen

What is imaginative play?

Imaginative play or pretend play is essentially a form of make-believe. It allows children to engage in role play in a safe environment and act out scenarios based on what they find interesting.


Unlike active play, such as swings, slides and games, imaginative play is based on fantasy and has no boundaries or structure attached. It’s driven completely by creativity and fun as opposed to goals, results or rules.

What are the benefits of imaginative play?

Imaginative play is important for a child’s development and has a whole host of learning benefits. As well as lowering anxiety and improving cognitive skills, imaginative play can enable a child to:

  • Identify with the adult world
  • Practice social, language and negotiation skills
  • Develop confidence and self-esteem
  • Learn to share and take turns
  • Improve concentration and focus
  • Express their personality and be creative
  • Show initiative
  • Activate the senses (visual, auditory etc)
  • Problem-solve
  • Think critically and logically
  • Develop emotionally by learning all about empathy and connecting with others
  • Come up with new ways of seeing and being

While there are different stages of play based on a child’s age and development, studies have found that, in general, imaginative play can enhance reading and writing activities, decrease disruptive behaviors and foster “an understanding that others can have different thoughts, views, feelings and beliefs.” Imaginative play can also begin for children at any time.

How to encourage imaginative play

From toys that inspire kids to play make-believe to general activities that encourage creativity, imaginative play knows no bounds. Here’s how to encourage imaginative play at home.

1. Create a designated place to play

While some parents are more than happy for their children to use the whole house as their own personal playground, others choose to set aside space for imaginative play.

Whether it’s underneath the dining room table (hello, makeshift den!), inside a built-in wardrobe or in a corner of the living room with props and toys regularly rotated to keep stimulation levels high, having a place that your child can feel safe and free in will actively encourage imaginative play.

2. Get involved

The beauty of imaginative play is that, while it can be done alone (and many children certainly enjoy this), adults can often make excellent playmates.

Whether it’s playing shops or learning how to cook, getting involved in your child’s imaginative play can help to inspire new ideas and keep a storyline going. Just make sure they’re always the one to take the lead – after all, what’s imaginative play without the freedom to explore and let imaginations run riot?

Involvement in your child’s imaginative play can also prove beneficial for bonding and interaction.

What parents say:

“Just go with it and don’t try to control the play – it's their imagination this is about. You can limit the time you play though. But for that hour, be wholehearted about it. It will be much more satisfying for them if you play properly for an hour than halfheartedly all morning.”

3. Use different props and toys

While we’re certainly fans of the old versatile cardboard box – or, should we say, car, castle, cash register, puppet theatre AND house – having a variety of props or toys is a great way to help children think creatively. It will also offer up lots of opportunities for pretend play.

We’re not suggesting you splash out either. After all, a washing basket can make a brilliant boat for a spot of living room floor fishing.

If you choose to buy toys, make sure you don’t put too many out at the same time as this could be overwhelming or distracting.

What parents say:

“My three-year-old loves an empty box and pretends to make it into a house/castle/shop. When my five-year-old was three, he didn't do that. It might be interesting to give your child an empty cardboard box and watch what he does with it?”

4. Keep it simple

As children get older, imaginative play will become more and more creative. For very young children who need a bit of encouragement, being face-to-face will enable them to see your facial expressions and gestures. A few repetitive actions will also help you to kick-start playtime.

For children learning to take charge, parents mimicking their actions will be the motivation they need to carry on.

What parents say:

“My DD 2.5 is highly imaginative and plays make believe with all her toys completely unprompted by me and mixes toys in her fictitious worlds too. DH and I were also highly imaginative from a very early age.”

5. Expose them to new experiences

As your child grows, introducing them to new things will help to spark their imagination. These experiences may then be the inspiration they need to engage in imaginative play long-term.

Whether it’s a trip to the park, shopping at the supermarket or reading a new children’s book that will soon become their bedtime favourite, new experiences mean even more ideas for imaginative playtime.

Toddler playing

10 imaginative play ideas

Imaginative play comes in all shapes and sizes. Here are some of our favourite ideas to help you bring your child’s creativity to life.

1. Learn to cook

For young children eager to start cooking and baking, why not set them up with their very own toy kitchen.

Children love to copy their parents so giving them their own kitchen space nearby so that they can ‘help’ you prepare a delicious weekday meal may be just what they need. This may then lead to more imaginative kitchen play as time goes on.

What parents say:

“Play kitchens really are so popular. I work in a nursery in the two-year-old room and my guys absolutely love playing in the kitchen home corner. We have a play kitchen in the garden that’s also really popular with all ages.”

2. Play dress-up

Whether it’s a simple costume made out of bed sheets or your child enthusiastically raiding your wardrobe, playing dress-up is one of the most popular pretend play ideas for children of all ages.

Plus, if you’re a parent keen to get involved in the fun, take it from us – you’ll never get tired of those weekly dress-up parties.

What parents say:

“DD had a doctor's costume and bag when she was little that was played with endlessly.”

3. Doctors and patients

There’s nothing sweeter than watching a child learn to take care and be mindful of others, which is why doctor/patient role play is great for strengthening a child’s social skills.

While you won’t necessarily need lots of props for this, the Smoby Medical Rescue Trolley, which is loaded with everything from a thermometer to a stethoscope, may be useful for narrative development.

4. Go to the shops

Another classic that nostalgically takes us back to our own childhoods, pretend play involving any sort of shop or supermarket is always a winner.

Household items and props come in very handy here. Or you could invest in a toy supermarket that comes with its very own shopping trolley and cash register.

What parents say:

“Any food/shop/kitchen type set-up. Things like a till with pretend money, shopping baskets. You'll be endlessly playing shop or eating pretend food though!”

5. At-home sing-a-long

Who doesn’t love a bit of living room karaoke?

While the neighbours may find this significantly less adorable than you will, ultimately there are no holds barred when it comes to an at-home sing-a-long. Invest in a toy microphone to allow them to really embrace that pop star lifestyle.

6. Pretend DIY

Can they fix it? Yes, they can! This Smoby Giant Black and Decker Toy Work Bench will make any child’s DIY dreams come true.

What parents say:

“We got the Black and Decker Work Bench from Argos for my DS’s third Christmas and it was great. Came with lots of bits. He’s five now and it’s still going strong.”

7. Restaurants and cafés

Toddler playing with toy kitchen

Whether it’s taking orders, clearing tables or preparing lots of scrumptious meals, setting up a restaurant or café is another popular form of imaginative play.

If you’re looking to splash out on a toy restaurant with a variety of accessories to (ahem) feed their creativity, Smoby’s Chef Corner Restaurant could be the ideal solution.

8. Be the teacher

Good for language and writing, and for curious toddlers wondering what school is really like, playing teacher can help to get children excited about being in the classroom.

Imagination is all a child really needs for this, but a child-sized chalkboard and chalk could also be helpful.

9. Play at parents

Dolls in particular are very relatable for children and can be a great toy to weave into imaginative play.

Through mimicking a parent’s behaviour, children can learn to be empathetic and make sense of the world around them.

While dolls and pushchairs, such as Smoby’s Maxi-Cosi Quinny Twin Dolls Pushchair, are what many children may be drawn to, teddies and other toys or objects can just as easily be used for this type of role play.

What parents say:

“DS loves a dolly buggy and I made a dolly carrier for him too.”

10. Help out in the garden

If you have a little green-fingered child, a mini garden set or kids’ lawnmower could be the perfect toy to encourage some outdoor pretend play – good for both physical and emotional development.

What parents say:

“If you have a lawn, a toy lawnmower can be fun and quite physical.”


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