Imaginative play is important at all ages, but especially for young children. Decades of research studies have shown how much play can positively effect social, emotional and cognitive development. The best toys and situations are often the simplest. Here’s an example from my own family.
We gathered together for a holiday feast at my sister’s house—with children ranging from toddlers to her own two who were in college. After the big meal, the younger children were restless. My oldest nephew searched in the garage and found his old collection of “hot wheels” which he put on the floor. Immediately the three- to seven-year-olds began sorting cars, finding household furnishing to make ramps and roads, and devising races and imaginative scenarios.
Some of the girls got tired of the cars, so my oldest niece brought out her old collection of purses, scarves and other accessories. They were delighted to try out different looks in the mirror, pack and unpack the purses, and make up little dramas together.
Everyone was happily engaged, but Kiki, a tiny two-year-old, walked around with a leather wallet purse, looking a little lost. I called her over and looked at her “accessory.” I noticed that it had many different closures and compartments. I slowly began to pull a zipper as I said, “Zzzzip!!” I pulled every zipper over and over and over again and snapped every snap while making a popping sound with my mouth. Kiki watched intently and smiled a little at the sounds. Soon she began chanting with me. Then she took the wallet back and began to work the parts on her own, softly chanting, “Zip!” and making little popping sounds. Later I saw her demonstrating to a cousin.
This was not only a day of celebration, but a happy day of imaginative play. I wasn’t trying to “teach” Kiki anything besides how to have fun with an old wallet—that was important enough. Of course, she may have simultaneously be learning about how to investigate and what causes different effects as well as developing what educators call “phonemic awareness,” at the same time (and the other kids may have been learning a lot about social interaction)—but—again—just learning to play is enough. If you have young children, you, too, may need to jump start their play and explorations by thinking like a kid and having fun. But, before you go to the toy store, look in the garage, closet or trunk and see what you can find.