9 Ways to Encourage Imaginative Play


Free, unstructured, child-directed play is vanishing in today’s society.  Yet many believe it’s crucial to children’s intellectual and emotional development, and to our survival as an innovative nation that is competitive in the global marketplace.

Last week in Make-Believe: Free Yet Worth A Million, we talked about why free play is good and why it is disappearing.

Let’s get practical now. What if we want our children to be able to play more, but we don’t know where to start?  Here are some ideas:

1.  Eliminate one after-school activity a week.

Or we could limit each child to one activity per week. Also, we could leave at least one weekend day free of commitments and let the whole family have some downtime.

2.  Schedule in free play.

Instead of organized sports, which put a lot of pressure on kids to compete according to adult rules, we could schedule in playground time or an afternoon to just run around climbing trees, making forts in bushes, and searching for roly-polys.  If we join up with another parent, it becomes a social event for the adults too.

Stuart Brown, author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, claims that, “play deficiencies cause obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, childhood depression, classroom ‘behavioral problems involving violence,’ and the ‘inability to interact well with peers.'”  (Let the Children Play Some MoreNew York Times Happy Days Blog)

3.  Provide our children with open-ended toys.

Arts and crafts supplies, dress-up clothes and hats, cars and trains, dolls and animals, legos and building sets are just some of the toys that require a child’s essential input to make them come to life.  We should steer away from media characters that appear in shows that kids know well.  (It’s too tempting for them to fall into repeating scenarios.)

4.  Concede a little chaos.

In last month’s New York Times’ article, Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum, free play advocate and mother of three, Megan Rosker,

set aside the large sunroom in her home for the children and filled it with blocks, games, crayons, magazines to cut up and draw in, as well as toys and dress-up clothes. ‘”I think a big part of free play is having space to do it in, a space that isn’t ruled over by adults,” she said.”

“The other key is not to instruct kids how to play with something,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many board-game pieces have been turned into something else. But I let them do it because I figure their imagination is more valuable than the price of a board game.”

But, Ms. Rosker added, “I won’t claim any of this has been easy for me or my husband,” noting that her husband used to be “a total neat freak.” She said they have learned to live with disarray and to take other difficult steps, like strict limits on screen time.

5.  Show them how it’s done.

Most of us don’t want to make-believe for hours with our kids — and we shouldn’t have to.  But we can just get them started by picking up a stuffed animal or a truck and say in an animated voice, “I want my mommy!” or  “Our friend the elephant fell in some quicksand.  Let’s go save him!”

6.  Seriously limit screen time.

Play—the “ability to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving”—is the number one skill necessary to be able to use technology in the future, according to a recent study by MIT researchers.  (Healthy Media Choices)

It doesn’t seem possible, but today’s kids spend an average of 7 hours 38 minutes a day in front of screens, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year.

A half an hour to an hour of screen time a day could be our new goal.  With all the activities vying for kids time (including oft-overlooked sleep), TV and video games should be a last resort.  As an added reinforcement, we can avoid using screens as entertainment on playdates and reduce the times our children see us in front of screens.  (Monkey see, monkey do.)

7.  Get them out.


On nice days, we might have to force our children to play outside, even if they claim they don’t want to.  If it helps, we could invite friends over, or get some things done ourselves outside, like shoveling snow, raking leaves, weeding, or gardening.

We could:

  • give them supplies for a snowman, or food colors to dye the snow
  • let them have a picnic on their own
  • bring out armfuls of trucks or plastic animals, shovels and sleds
  • encourage them to use bark and leaves to make houses for fairies
  • ask them to see how many dandelions they can find (or icicles, special stones, or pinecones)
  • install a simple sandbox in your backyard, or give them buckets to make snowcastles

8.  Don’t be afraid.

Meagan Francis, parenting author and blogger at The Happiest Mom, commented on my last post saying, “The one thing that would make the biggest change, I think, is less parental fear.”

Proponents of the Free-Range Kids movement say that the world is actually safer than it was when we were growing up.  Reality shows, crime series and news reels just make it seem as if the world is more dangerous.

If we need a pep talk about giving our kids freedom, as well as some pretty horrific stories about how society can make us feel bad about that, check out the Free-Range Kids blog, where the motto is, “How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts with Worry.”

9.  Talk to other parents.

Breaking away from the allure of illuminated story lines is hard, and to be fully supported, it will require a change in our culture. We can talk to other parents about what we are doing — letting play become contagious like a neighborhood of Victorian houses that goes pastel.

Important resources:

Alliance for Childhood

KaBOOM! (It Starts with a Playground)

Children and Nature (Building a Movement to Connect Children and Nature)

U.S. Play Coalition (Value of Play)

Play for Tomorrow (organizer of the Ultimate Block Party, 50,000 attendees in Central Park)

Final thought:  It’s Not Just For Kids


After gathering and analyzing thousands of case studies, Stuart Brown found in his book Play that:

“remembering what play is all about and making it part of our daily lives are probably the most important factors in being a fulfilled human being.

The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.”

Share this post:


  • Casey LA September 26, 2016, 5:41 pm


    I grew up in a household that was blooming with imagination! I cherish those memories of imagining with my sister. Based on those memories and a need I saw in a technology infused culture, I decided to start an imagination kids club – #ImagineTogether. Check it out – ImagineTogetherClub.Com. I truly hope you all will enjoy it!

  • Amy March 5, 2011, 9:50 pm

    Hi Allison,

    It’s so good to hear from you. There is a lot of subtle pressure on parents to sign our kids up for more, or try to direct their activities in a way that society values.

    It sounds like you are doing a great job. My hats are off to all homeschoolers — you are saints, in my eyes!

    Thanks for writing in,

  • Allison February 20, 2011, 6:07 pm

    Amy- I love this post. As a current homeschooler, one of the things I struggled with since my oldest is 5 is that I wasn’t doing enough “structured” activities with my daughter for school. After hearing a report on NPR about the importance of free play the guilt was washed away. I have loved watching her with her siblings, playing, pretending, and learning, in addition to the many valuable home school lessons that also include play. Now I just need to get better about getting different props out! Thanks for the refreshing tips!

  • Melissa February 9, 2011, 9:32 am

    Thanks so much for these practical ideas. My daughter is only 1.5 but this is something I want to be very conscious of – I loved Last Child in the Woods and really want my daughter to grow up with a sense of discovery and play, even in suburbia! We are trying to keep characters out of the house for as long as possible but it is amazing that my toddler comes home from daycare asking for Elmo already!
    Especially in CNY in the winter (and being a working mom) it can feel tough to get them out playing, a good reminder to make it a priority when possible.

    • Amy February 13, 2011, 8:11 am

      Hi Melissa,

      I love that book Last Child in the Woods. It’s totally possible to foster a sense of discovery and play in the suburbs, but I realize that winter and parents having less time present challenges. Amazing how kids pick up all this stuff from their friends at school!

      Thanks for writing in!


  • Jen @ Jen Spends February 8, 2011, 10:12 pm

    This is pretty much how I’m raising my son, mainly because I grew up the same way! Although we always had what we needed, our family was poor and we never had the latest toys. I attribute my creativity and problem-solving skills to my childhood. If I wanted something that my friends had, I would try my best to make it. There was a teeter-totter fashioned out of picnic table benches, snap bracelets made from paper…and more dubious attempts, like letter A’s cut from masking tape and affixed to generic leather sneakers to make them “Airwalks”. Not everything worked, but it was fun trying. My favorite toys were basic blocks, Lincoln Logs and anything else that I could repurpose to make into a building material…it’s no wonder I grew up to study architecture. My little guy has more than I ever did growing up…I’ve been able to get him a lot of nice toys, but I stick to the basics that encourage him to use his imagination. I don’t need to buy him new stuff constantly, because he finds fun new ways to play with the things he already has. There is nothing more rewarding than sitting back and watching him use his imagination!

    • Amy February 11, 2011, 10:14 pm

      Dear Jen,

      I’m so glad you see where I am coming from. I loved hearing about your childhood and all the creative things you dreamed up, and imagining you watching your son do similar things.

      The faux Airwalk story is hilarious!

      I think being frugal — or poor — is conducive to using our imagination in this way, and that is part of the reason our wealthy society is veering away from it.

      Thanks so much for sharing your story!