In a 2013 study on “Pretend and Physical Play”, psychologists Eric Lindsay and Malinda Colwell observed that children who engage in imaginative play express more emotional engagement, thoughtfulness and understanding, and less negative emotional expression such as selfishness and anger, and score higher on tests of emotional regulation and understanding. (Source: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/family-time/imaginative-play-benefits/)
Childhood is a time of magic. Wooden rings can become swim belts for peg people, rainbow stackers can become slides or rockers for small dolls and soft toys, and little ones can become doctors, bakers, baristas, builders or explorers, all in one day. When children use their imagination in play they are developing crucial psychological and emotional capacities that help them understand the world in which they live and their relation to it; they are learning to solve problems, create new possibilities, even change the world.
Imaginative play helps children to recognise their emotional responses to things. On more and more occasions, I notice our almost 3 years old daughter talking to her dolls, asking them how they feel and comforting them or on other occasions, telling them off. She also loves telling us how someone feels based on their facial expressions and wants to discuss why they are sad, happy, angry or disappointed. In this sort of imaginative activity, children process how they felt when they were told off themselves, and develop an empathetic understanding of why their parent was angry, or how it feels to care and be cared for.
We as adults can often under value imaginative play. Role play may seem to be a very simple activity when in reality, young children learn very important practical life skills through it.
Our daughter for example loves to pretend nowadays that there is a fire, she uses one of the autumn leaves I made out of felt as the fire. She then calls the fire brigade on her phone which is a little calculator and then the fire engine arrives and puts out the fire. We use this scenario to teach her what she needs to state in an emergency.
We also tend to think our children need more than they actually need to play. All we need to do is give our children space and time and encourage them and be their partner if they wish. We can for example put a blue material on the floor and ask them what they think it might be. When I did this for the first time our daughter asked us to sit with her and put our feet in the water. The next time it became a pond and we put fish and pebbles in it, then a swimming pool with peg dolls in swim belts. I tend to play with her for a few minutes and then I let her play alone and only go back when she asks me to do so.
Reading is also very important and is connected to imaginative play as through reading, we expose our little ones to different scenarios, stories and experiences. Just like when we take them to places where we don't usually go to, like a pumpkin patch or a farm. These are also ways of exploring new experiences that will provide children with more experiences and more ideas for their imaginative play.