How to fuel your child's imagination and teach them how to play

Long ago, in what our kids would call ‘the days of the dinosaurs’, before we had technology to entertain us non-stop, children would be left alone to play (inside or outside) and they would just know what to do and how to play. But things have changed a lot. Nowadays, most children, if asked to go outside and play, would find themselves thinking, ‘Ok… now what do I do?’

It’s the difference between a generation of children able to entertain themselves and a generation who need to be entertained by others.

girl holding up bored sign

So what are the consequences of this change? Well firstly, having to find entertainment for your children 24/7 puts a lot of pressure on you as the parent. At times, we’d all like to leave them alone without feeling guilty that they’re glued to the TV or a tablet – there’s nothing wrong with that. Then there is a question about imagination. Without the encouragement (and sometimes opportunity) to invoke their imaginations, are a lot of our children growing up without realising they have one? Imagination is so important in our world. The next writers, scientists, artists, actors, businessmen – will all need to be able to visualise and empathise to be successful.

A survey commissioned by Littlewoods in 2014 found that of the 1000 six-twelve year olds they questioned, 40% had never seen a conker, 30% didn’t know what a woodlouse looked like, and 20% didn’t know what a tadpole was.

WHAT? Just let that sink in…

So should we be putting more emphasis on play in our everyday lives?

Short answer, yes.

But that doesn’t mean giving your kids ‘things’ – like water pistols or footballs – and just expecting them to be able to amuse themselves. That won’t work. Digital media has indulged our growing ‘instant gratification’ culture, meaning our children have never really needed to think imaginatively about how to entertain themselves, so whatever item you give them isn’t going to amuse them for long. To make them successful we first need to teach them how to play.

And one of the best ways to do that is through reading…

To play you need to engage your imagination. And contradictory to certain beliefs, yes, every child has one. Some are bigger and broader than others, some are more abstract, and some more functional, yet they all exist. 

A child’s imagination is like a fire that’s just started to smoke, it needs to be tended, stoked and fuelled, or it will dwindle. But once that imagination is flared, it becomes a blaze that is near impossible to snuff out.

Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.” 

Vera Nazarian

It’s in books that we discover new worlds, new perspectives and new ways of thinking. Ideas that we can take from the page out into reality. 

This is none more true than with children’s literature. Take Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, or Harry Potter for instance, they all tell stories that can (and do) live beyond their books. Stories that are rooted in places and situations that we can relate to, yet which evolve and take us beyond them. They show us how the ordinary things in the world around us can actually be extraordinary.

‘Hundred Acre Wood’ could be any woodland you come across. There are plenty of ‘Rabbit Holes’ that little girls named ‘Alice’ could fall down. And I’ve been to London loads of times, surely one of those turnings hides the entrance to ‘Diagon Alley’.

Stories like these are the key in transforming the way children play. 

When they’re exposed to this kind of thinking, they’re more likely to act out their own stories. Where they might have been bored playing with a ball in the garden before, now they are playing ‘Quidditch’ or have even invented their own game!

small boy pretending to be a ninja in the woods

A good book has no ending.” 

R.D. Cumming

Truer words have not been said. A good book lives on in the reader long after the book is closed. It changes them. It inspires them. And it teaches them new things.

Reading builds both cognitive and imaginative muscle in children. A 2007 report featured in ‘Psychology Today’ found that the more books found in a family home, the better scores children had in a variety of subjects at school. Parents can do a lot to help foster and nurture imaginative play, and providing them with books is just the start. 

A few tips to champion 'play'

  • Give them the mental and physical space to play make-believe. Allocate a room and switch off distractions like the TV.
  • Set aside the time for children to play. Our day-to-day schedules can be hectic, but playtime is important, and may free up time for you.
  • Provide your children with the materials to play – craft supplies, toys, and books to take inspiration from. 
  • Allow your children some privacy. Let them play alone where appropriate, as it will be more beneficial for them.

A child who is supported and allowed and able to play, will consequently be more comfortable being alone and playing with friends. Their imaginations will grow faster and broader. But something to remember is that ‘play’ is subjective. It’s different for everyone. It’s not all fairies and fantasy. Even simple things like timing your running with a glow-in-the-dark watch like a super-star athlete, or making notes of your day like a spy, are all examples of ‘play’.

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” 

– Fred Rogers

The road may be hard, but we know you parents can do it. We’re trying to get our kids unstuck from the TV (just for a little while) and open up their worlds.

Happy playing. ☺️