When your child turns an empty bottle into a train or has a playdate with a pretend friend, it isn’t just cute—it’s beneficial. "Imaginary play allows children to try out social interactions, explore their creativity, and make sense of the world," says Amy Robbins-Wilson, an expressive arts specialist in Belfast, Maine, who runs music and art programs. "Childhood is a precious and magical time, and it’s important to encourage imaginative play." Here’s how:
Let kids have an imaginary BFF. "Our daughter used to have an imaginary dog. Whenever she’d hear a dog barking in the neighborhood, she’d say, ‘That’s Pongo!’" says Lisa Collins, a mom of one in Portland, Oregon. "So we’d talk about what Pongo was doing, if he was hungry, if we should go out and play with him. She was very imaginative about him. The only time it got wearing was at the grocery store, when she’d want to buy Pongo every dog treat she saw!"
Get down with floor time. While it’s good for kids to have time alone with their toys, enjoying floor time together can spur their creativity even more. Ask lots of questions and let your child’s answers guide you. (If you’re attending a pretend tea party, just be careful not to sit on the imaginary friend.)
Use your own imagination. One of Robbins-Wilson’s favorite games: "Assign a different sound to each part of your child’s face—a squeak for the cheek, a whistle for the nose. Then make those sounds as you touch her face." Another fun option: Children are often fascinated with animals, so think like a furry creature. Make a nest out of a beanbag chair or create a cave in a corner, then pretend to be animals together.
Listen creatively, too. "Go on a listening safari. Listening skills are crucial to future literacy and learning," says Robbins-Wilson. "Sit quietly with your child in different parts of your house and do nothing but listen. Whoever hears the fridge go on first, for example, should point it out. Ditto for the furnace or AC. Play the game outside, too."
Turn off the TV! Free play is a time for children’s minds to roam and expand. Minimize screen time and give kids plenty of opportunities to create starring roles in their own world.