The Importance of Imaginative Play

April 15, 2016

Play is the main activity and primary source of development in early childhood; as least, according to many psychologists. One form of play that’s particularly beneficial to mental development is imaginary role play, or make-believe—in which children transform themselves into pretty much anything (from a doctor to a dragon) and act out their roles within a group setting, with various rules of engagement. This type of play can draw in children of all ages and can often be extremely engrossing—with some games lasting for hours! However, due to constraints on time, as well as shifts in the culture of childhood, this type of imaginary role play is increasingly rare. As a consequence, the play of today’s children is measurably less sophisticated than that of previous generations. But, should we be worried; and, if so, what can parents and childcare workers do to help?

The Importance of Make-believe

Imaginative role play was once described by the Russian psychologist, Daniel Elkonin, as a ‘giant treasure chest of creativity,’ stimulating cognitive development1. Play is also a liberating activity that enables children to experience and experiment with situations that are often beyond their years. But, despite this liberation, imaginative play also imposes boundaries, which are defined by the rules of the game. Indeed, the existence of boundaries is one of the greatest benefits of imaginary play—as these rules encourage the concept of behavioural self-regulation. Children who act impulsively, against the rules of the game, will invariably be excluded. Thus, imaginative play is an essential preparation for the harsh realities of adulthood.

Imaginative Play: Then and Now 

The Russian psychologist, Elkonin, devised four different categories for classifying imaginative play; which ranged in sophistication from low to high. By replicating experiments that were performed in the 1940s, he then used these categories to compare the imaginative play of post-war and early 21st century children. The results were astounding. What Elkonin found was that 5 and 6 year olds of the 21st century had levels of play that were more typical of toddlers in the 1940s; and that 7 year olds of the 21st century had levels of behavioural self-regulation that were typical of pre-schoolers! Children of the 21st century were also generally less able to follow directions. The potential consequences of these changes in behaviour are alarming. For example, children of the 21st century may grow up to act more impulsively, as adults, irrespective of the ‘rules’ of society. Therefore, by denying children the chance to play, we could be storing up trouble for the future!

What can we do to help?

Surprisingly, play is not an instinctive behaviour that we are all born with. Instead, most children learn to play from older siblings and playmates, who act as mentors. In the past this was easy; as most children generally had more time, and greater freedom, to socialise and make friends within their neighbourhood. By contrast, children of the 21st century lead much more structured lives (of clubs, lessons and organised activities), with less time to socialise (with more TV and computer games!), and fewer freedoms. School and childcare settings are also invariably segregated by age. Thus, the friends, that most modern children make, are equally inexperienced in the art of play. This means that many skills, that were previously learned from older siblings and friends, now need to be modelled and taught by teachers and childcare workers—including nannies. So the challenge for all parents and childcare workers is to encourage the inception of play without it becoming yet another adult-directed activity. This can be achieved through the introduction of age-appropriate props, costumes, and suggested scenarios (e.g. to encourage a child to become a shop keeper, police constable or doctor). Children will then need time (and plenty of it!) to expand and explore the idea of imaginative play in order to develop their skills. Most children would also benefit from less time in front of a TV or computer, and more time outside playing with their friends.

Rob Hodgkison, Harmony at Home Ltd. All Rights Reserved, 2016

  1. Elena Bodrova and Deborah J. Leong. 2015. Vygotskian and Post-Vygotskian Views on Children’s Play. American Journal of Play, 7: 371-388.

Photo 30-10-2012 10 20 10

Posted by Harmony at Home Head Office Team | Filed Under Activities for Children, Expert Advice