Supporting Child Development Through Imaginative Play

December 30th, 2020

“I want to play!” Sounds familiar? This is always what’s on the mind of children from when they’re first able to move around on their own and for the whole duration of a child’s development. As they grow older, we slowly teach our children to move away from “play”. Reasons vary but the intention behind it is usually good. However, is it really beneficial to the child in the long run?

Does Play Improve Child Development?

Sports isn’t considered “play” by researchers’ definition. True play is self-directed and self-supervised, which is not the nature of sports. Adults are meant to only facilitate and leave when their presence is no longer required. Only when play of this description is allowed can there be well-rounded child development.

Studies show that play is the natural way for children to develop essential skills they’ll use in adulthood. It’s how they explore their world and discover more about themselves as well as how these two things are related to each other. Play may seem trivial to grown-ups but they can range from simple to complex ideas.

It’s not only human beings who play but all mammals, which indicates that this is a natural trait for the young in many species. Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, shared during his TED Talk, in some communities such as hunter-gatherer kinds, children are left to play all day, completely unsupervised by an adult to develop those needed skills.


Observe kids at play. When playing together, they often converse to designate roles, plan tasks, and move the activity forward, especially when playing pretend. The words they use over time change and the speech structure becomes more sophisticated.

Kids also pick up words and ways of speaking from each other, which they got from their teachers, parents, and relatives. In these exchanges, they learn to communicate more clearly as well as understand others better. Through conversations, they experience the power of words, and that it affects people and the world around them.

Empathy and Other Social Skills

Before team-building activities and organized sports, a person first learns to work with other people and in groups through play. Even children as young as 3 years old have personalities and coming together in play helps them navigate everyone’s quirks, likes, dislikes, and ideas.

An experiment with rats was conducted wherein young rats were deprived of play but allowed other social interactions. When they were fully grown, these rats were placed in new environments and introduced to rats they’ve never met before. The rats that never experienced play reacted with fear and aggression, hiding in a corner and lashing out at the new acquaintances.

Several things happen during play that brings out different emotions in children. They learn to handle disappointment, fear, change, misunderstandings, and others, which is what makes play so good for child development. It’s no coincidence that as play is removed more and more from their lives, the rate of mental illnesses and suicide among the young increase.

Logic and Reasoning

Play includes decision-making and problem-solving. From the beginning, kids have to decide on the kind of game to play and the roles each of them will have to take on. Depending on what they decide to do, they may encounter actual problems like accidentally tearing someone’s clothes.

In other cases, as in pretend, they simulate real-life problems. For example, the baby in the scenario gets sick and they have to bring her to the hospital. One child would appoint themselves as the doctor and heal the baby. Other kids might be the family and they have to figure out what to do while waiting and dealing with worry.

What happens during play is stored in their memory, which they’ll draw on for other times of play and continue to build on, even as the time comes when it’ll apply to real life.

Motor skills

A huge part of “play” is physical. It’s where they get to practice and enhance their motor skills, from make-believe airplanes running around, or the slow chugs of old-fashioned trains. Even when kids are immersed in dolls, dressing and undressing them, improves their hand-eye coordination.

Playing rough is also important for learning as it teaches kids limitations and impulse control. This would need some supervision of at least one adult to ensure no one gets seriously hurt but it still provides valuable learnings of what’s okay to do and what isn’t.

It’s also a safe time for them to explore the possibility of becoming a gymnast, a martial arts expert, or a great athlete. While their forms would be far from perfect or their aim isn’t anywhere near making contact with the imaginary ball, that first swing or kick is a taste of practice. Memories of these simple afternoons also encourage them to chase their ambition.

Imagination and Creativity

Yes, it’s an important everyday skill for adults. We use imagination when we’re trying to fix a broken chair or faucet. It’s useful at work when we hit a roadblock we haven’t encountered before and need a workaround. We also use it in conversation, from casual jokes to making enticing proposals and closing deals.

Even the most celebrated scientist, Albert Einstein said that imagination trumped logic, with his famous quote, “Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.” Engineering feats don’t start from the drafting of the blueprint but in child development. It began when the young saw blocks as a castle to walking around with a hard hat and toy hammer.


Understanding the nature of anything is the first step to creating effective programs. Shunning play from curriculums without comprehension of the value it holds has been detrimental to this generation’s child development. It’s not too late, however, if parents come forward and see that kids are given the freedom for sufficient hours of play a day.

Introduce them to playing outdoors, building forts with blankets, and baking animal cookies. Be more intentional when purchasing toys. Choose ones that encourage imagination instead of boxing them in. Gadgets and video games are good fun but keep it to a minimum during their developing years as they tend to dictate play rather than help them be more creative.