Toys That Encourage Imaginative Play

How to Get Kids Away from Screens and Into Creativity, Nature, and Independence

To encourage brain power, creativity, and problem-solving, give a child an open-ended toy, one that requires the child’s imagination to come to life.

Mounting evidence suggests that make-believe play is good for our kids — intellectually, emotionally, physically. The New York Times even reported that the self-regulation skills that dramatic play develops “have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests.”

But in this age of busy schedules, branded character toys, hand-held computers, and seemingly unsafe streets, free play is hard to come by. We often joke about how kids are more interested in the box the toy came in than the toy itself, yet it takes courage to choose toys that don’t talk, zoom, light up, or touch down.

“Play is useful for children, and engaging and exciting for children, when they drive the play, when they’re in charge of what’s going to happen in the play,” says says Susan Linn, Harvard psychologist and author of The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World.

An imaginative toy is like a healthy meal as opposed to a junk-food snack. Doing things the hard way — like making food from scratch or creating your own rocket ship — takes more time, but the effort almost always pays off in emotional and physical rewards.

“A toy that nurtures creative play is ninety percent child and only ten percent toy,” says Linn. Here are some ideas, taken from my own life and from free-play advocates.

Colorful Scarves

Toys That Encourage Imaginative Play

When I was writing Make-Believe: Free Yet Worth a Million, I asked readers what toys encourage creativity, and scarves were a favorite answer. A square piece of fabric? It’s amost annoyingly simple, yet it’s surprisingly transformative.

A simple scarf found at a second-hand store — and the bigger the better — can be used in a thousand ways to fuel pretend play. From a dress to a turban, a tent to a curtain, a scarf is extremely versatile. Plus, when tucked away for the night, it won’t take up precious space in your house.

Doctor Kit

Kids of all ages know what it means to “play doctor,” and there’s a reason for that. There’s something so satisfying about both being the doctor who knows everything and is in control, and the patient who gets prodded and paid close attention to.

The last time my kids played doctor, they wrote up prescriptions and created a little hospital out of blankets draped over chairs. (The invalid’s fortunes improved drastically when he got to be entertained and fed while lying on the sick couch.)

Gardening Tools

Toys that Encourage Imaginative Play

The world of nature is, well, a natural setting for imaginative play. Kids want to copy whatever grown-ups are doing, but if there is only one trowel, gardening can become the opposite of therapeutic.

Give them their own set of kid-sized tools and the chance to get creative with plant life and you never know what will happen. Perhaps they’ll help you weed. Perhaps they’ll end up fashioning a habitat for fairies or gnomes. Either way, you win.

Model Cars

If you happen to have wee wheel-lovers, you know that they treat their vehicles like dolls. My sons create scenarios for their cars as if they were people.

They also tilt their heads so they can check out how the wheels turn over all sorts of terrain, and they test how far they can go — on rugs, on wood, on mulch, and through the air.

As much as I love the look of stylized and wooden cars, my kids always go for the most realistic ones. Hot Wheels matchbox-type cars are easy to tuck in a bag for entertainment on the run.


Parents who own microscopes say these tools have the power to keep their kids busy for hours and hours, all the while fostering a love of science and nature.

There’s no end to the number of things that kids can examine — from translucent liquids like pond water and Coke to solid materials like pennies, leaves, and yarn.

Building Blocks

Toys that Encourage Creative Play

How many times in life are we required to take basic building blocks and create something fantastic?

Kids can make garages for their cars, stalls for their plastic animals, or castles for their royals. You can get more elaborate with blocks tailored for various buildings, but sometimes simple works just as well, if not better.

Musical Instruments

Listening to music should be part of every child’s growing-up experience, but allowing them to experiment with the physical act of making sounds is important too. For toddlers and early-elementary-age kids, try a box of toy instruments like tambourines, triangles, and xylophones.

The next step for a child who seems interested in music could be a more life-like instrument like a recorder, a basic keyboard, or a microphone for singing.

Play Dough

Like Legos, play clay will probably never go out of style as creativity catalyst. Even though Legos now come in kits with detailed instructions and Play-Doh is packaged with molds and accessories, the kid-friendly clay is still just putty in their hands.

Play dough is one of the few messy things that I’m willing to fuss with. I ask my kids to make me spaghetti and meatballs, caterpillars and snails, bracelets and wheels.

Dress-Up Clothes

Just like a glittery dress can make mom feel like a million bucks, a fanciful outfit can transport a kid out of the everyday world and into something extraordinary.

Encourage children to come up with storylines from scratch by passing over the Disney princesses and Pixar characters for generically fun outfits and accessories (most of which can probably be found in your closet or at a rummage sale.)

Play Kitchen

Toys that Encourage Imaginative Play

Anything that encourages role-playing is considered good for the brain. Studies say that the act of staying in character strengthens kids’ discipline and impulse-control, and promotes the social skills they’ll need as adults.

Play kitchens can be stocked with fabric vegetables and cooking tools. I’ve also found some pretty adorable felt cupcakes and cookies on Esty that are so well-made and attractive that they will be hard to give away when my kids grow out of them.

Colored Pencils

With a piece of paper and a box of colors, you can create anything. Once a child gets beyond crayons, he should never be without a set of colored pencils.

Colored pencils are spread on our table almost every day, and my daughters are big into creating their own paper dolls, door signs, and birthday invites. Much more versatile than markers, some pencils can even be blended with a wet paintbrush.

Outdoor Swing

Almost any form of outdoor play will encourage imagination and creativity. However, with all the glowing, lighted things in the climate-controlled indoors, it’s hard for both kids and adults to pull themselves away and out the door.

With enticing props like an easy-to-install swing — or a hammock, or a kite, or a sandbox — kids have a reason to run outside.

Doll Stroller

Toys that Encourage Imaginative Play

Girls and boys alike seem to love to push around someone or something in a vehicle just their size.

Whether the toy simply encourages physical activity or whether it fuels role play, this stroller by well-respected Nova Natural looks sturdy enough to pass down from child to child, and attractive enough for grown-ups to want to.

Animal Figurines

Collections of little plastic animals can be scooped up and taken out to the backyard, as my neighbor’s kids used to do, where they would create entire landscapes for herds of zebras, elephants, and lions.

These mini-savannahs involved watering cans and mud, but animals can just as easily make noises, talk to each other, and ride in the back of mini pick-up trucks indoors on the bathroom rug.

Cash Register

Toys that Encourage Imaginative Play

A toy cash register bridges the tech and traditional worlds. Most are equipped with buttons and beeps, but they really get interesting when kids act out the customers and salespeople.

Children can make their own money, and even write checks if they’re out of cash. They can decide upon merchandise using real objects around the house, and experiment with pricing by using removable labels.

There are lots of ideas here that involve spending money, but the truth is you probably have everything you need right now to get those creative juices flowing. In fact, encouraging imaginative play requires a kind of bravery, because it’s really more about subtracting than adding.

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  • Nina June 7, 2015, 1:39 pm

    We have many of these and a few that we’d love to have. My boys love their little cars and can spend long stretches of time making up who knows what with their little figurines.

    • Amy June 16, 2015, 9:24 am

      Good to hear from you, Nina. It sounds like your kids are very experienced with using their imaginations.

      Take care,

  • kat July 13, 2012, 11:11 am

    Daisy .love your name . it is my grandson puppies name he loves her to death , I have 13 grandchildren, i do understand your time to be yourself, i raised my kids and do not want to raise theirs, but i feel they have to work all the time and the kids miss out, so this is a few things, i have them do , first our morning starts with waking up and chores we either go feed the horses dogs, or fish, then we pick up our clothes , then we get dressed doing hair and so on, then breakfast, they eat meals i prepare fast cereal, or oatmeal which i do a fruit surprise sometimes not all the time, then we brush our teeth out side with a bowl of water they spit outside in yard, this way i am sure all brushed and done mess out side, then i let them play for an hour or two while i do my chores , while thier outside, i get the dinner ready fill prepared cups , then i go back out side, now for the games , first game might be run to the mail box, long drive way, next to wear them out we pick up sticks maybe for camp fire we might do, then we get sticks big enough for fishing, in pond, they may not catch anything but they had fun trying , i also have e 6000 glue we glue all of us on the table, working with glass or whaT EVER YOU HAVE THEY WAN T TO MAKE, KIDS Are easy, as long as you make it creative they will do it, then play time again while you get the meal on the table, with so many little ones it is way easier on you if the table is set, and ready then they put them away, then nap time with story while they sleep you take some chill time with a phone call to a friend or bible reading what ever your chill time is, then after an hour and a half no more or they won;t sleep at night, get them up for more play time, tell them to clean up their mess, then walk time with them then their play time, while you water your flowers, then veggie tales time or what ever they enjoy while you watch with them , kids take time but if you get into a routine change it so it does not become a habit for them and boring, praise them often spank them when they need it reward them with treats or little dollar store trinkets, your kids will fall into place and be better kids for anyone else, but the old saying spare the rod spoil the child is so true, temper tantrums go unrewarded and to bed missing out on play time
    kids are easy you might also trade babysitting days with someone so you can have down time and you should you have earned it ! have fun ~!

  • Jen @ Jen Spends May 3, 2012, 1:33 pm

    Hi again Amy… Do you have a recipe for the pasta, or do you just use your alfredo recipe? It looks delish (as does the salad)!

  • Jen @ Jen Spends May 1, 2012, 10:01 pm

    We have a little bit of TV time in the morning, but I have to say that nothing gives me more joy than seeing my son using his imagination as he plays with the toys I’ve carefully picked out for him. His play kitchen has been a big hit, and lately he has been into setting up elaborate scenes involving firetrucks, trains, and roadworkers. Now he’s even beginning to imagine pretend conversations between the characters (it made me chuckle recently when the firemen ended their phone conversation with “I love you!”). I know people who get excited that their toddlers can mimic cartoon characters or recite movie lines by heart, and that saddens me.

    • Amy May 1, 2012, 10:26 pm

      Hi Jen,

      I loved hearing about Mr. Boy’s elaborate scenes with cars and trucks — the “I love you!” line is precious. When children play with character toys and simply replay scripts from TV shows, they’re not really using their imagination, as you say. That’s why it’s so important to limit screen time and get kids into neutral territory — like nature — where they get to make up the story lines.

      Thanks for writing in, Jen,

  • emily young May 1, 2012, 9:32 pm

    OK, so I am not the best free-range parent out there…. Way overprotective!!! I guess that is why they have a dad. He lets them do things I never would!! Oh well…

    • Amy May 1, 2012, 9:37 pm

      Hi Emily,

      I hear you — it is HARD to trust the world with your child! But if it’s important to you, I’m sure you’ll find ways to let out the apron strings gradually.

      Thanks for writing in,

  • Daisy May 1, 2012, 8:43 pm

    I spend way too much time in front of the computer. I’m going to switch it off for the rest of today!

    • Amy May 1, 2012, 9:26 pm

      I like your can-do attitude, Daisy! Sometimes is just refreshing to do something new — get some fresh air or change perspective. I hope the rest of your day was satisfying!

      • Daisy May 3, 2012, 6:10 am

        Unfortunately I wasn’t able to stick to it, but it was a worthwhile exercise. I did minimise my computer time and I plan to try again. There seemed to be a lot of extra time in my day without the computer to absorb it.