more play makes imagination and empathy

This Is Why Your Kids Need More Imaginative Play

Empathy. Imaginative play does so many wonderful things for children, but I hold a bias toward empathy. One day my kids will be grown ups, and more than any career achievement, I want them to hold and maintain meaningful relationships. To do that, they need kindness and empathy. Imagination is a necessary building block for empathy.

Unfortunately, our current culture doesn’t favor imaginative play.

As parents, we all feel the threat to our kids’ imaginative lives. Our kids’ worlds are so different than how ours were. They’re not out building forts with sticks; they’re playing premade games on phone apps.

To a degree, every generation feels this: that their kids are growing up in radically different ways than they did. That’s not bad. It’s just different. However, there is a unique change right now in how we handle free time and what that means for children’s imagination.

In an earlier post, I noticed a connection between kindness, empathy, and imagination. However, it’s not just my intuition that links imagination and empathy. If you want kind kids, imagination is really important stuff.

The sweet imaginative worlds of my own childhood

But before we get into the science, can we all just take a moment and relish in the memory of the crazy, imaginative adventures of our childhood? There’s something about this topic that demands we remember what it is we’re fighting for our kids.

Let me relive my own adventures for just a moment…

I remember when my sister and I would prance around our dining room on napkin rings, pretending to Bambi. Let me tell you, wooden napkin rings on knees hurt! But no pain, no gain (or no realistic Bambi hooves).

Or we pretended to be orphans running away from an orphanage and heading into the wild, wild West. This was the story of our great-grandfather, and it loomed large in our imaginative heads.

Then there were days and days of playing “school” with the older neighbor girl, as she filled my yet unschooled mind with dreams of one day sitting at a desk.

During mulberry season in our neighborhood, we pretended we were stuck on an island with nothing to eat but the mulberries up in the tree. I don’t think we ever felt too deprived in our island life.

Later, at age six, I discovered the word processor, about the time my older sister was getting less interested in long hours of unstructured imaginative play. My days became filled with pages upon pages of imaginative stories. 

Like the story of Beara (a bear) who stood up against Liony (a lion), who was a big bully in the jungle. Naming my characters was a particular strength of mine.

Even as those around me began to forfeit their worlds of imagination, I clung to mine. First, I’d secretly spend hours playing with my dollhouse into my early teens, pretending it was only in my room “for decoration.” And then, by my continued love of the word processor. And, of course, books.

importance of imaginative play

Why imaginative play is important

Those imaginative escapades feel like the essence of childhood to me. Few things give me greater joy than to watch my boys beginning their own imaginative play.

These days my boys like to pretend their cars and trucks are family members (Mommy truck, baby car, brother car, etc.) and gather them up for full-on tea time. It’s a delight to watch!

But, the pretend play of my childhood (or now my kids’) wasn’t just fun. Our adventures were fun, but something deeper occurs with imaginative play. We created scenarios of struggle and danger, and then we practiced our ideal responses. We imagined lifestyles distant from our own and tried to figure out what would be somebody’s “normal” under the circumstances. 

What’s the significance?

I see two main points:

  1. By pretending to be somebody else, we imagined what somebody else in such a situation would feel. That’s pure empathy.
  2. And we practiced. We experimented with kindness (and meanness) while the stakes were much lower during pretend play. Usually, everybody avoided playing the “bad guy,” because it’s not fun to be unlikable! We rapidly internalized the social benefits of expressing kindness.

The Telegraph summarized a 2013 study which 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.”

More thoughtfulness and understanding, less selfishness and anger… That sounds a lot like kindness. 

Because this is a website on kindness, that’s my focus. If something helps a child learn to be kinder, that’s enough defense already.

However, researchers also associate pretend play with a whole host of other benefits, such as language development, problem solving, and even academic achievement.

technology prevents imagination

But times have changed

Many of today’s parents gained access to the internet in their tween years or older. We find ourselves suddenly thrown into the wilderness of raising kids in a world where technology is a constant presence.

And, let’s be clear, technology is neither good nor bad. But our kids’ relationship to time, particularly unscheduled time, has changed. Or their relationship to free time specifically…

Melissa Bernstein, co-founder of Melissa & Doug, wrote in 2016, “It’s not that yesterday’s parents knew more about child development; they simply had fewer options. Boredom and downtime were an inescapable part of daily life. Today, boredom and downtime are synonymous with, ‘I’m a bad parent and not doing enough to get my kid ahead.’”

Isn’t it true? So, we sign our kids up for activities and lessons, often great things that our kids love even. It’s not that we’re pushing them toward dreaded activities, but they’re losing their downtime.

And then… in that pause, when there is a chance for downtime, they ask for the tablet…

Boredom is hard on parents

Let’s have grace on the parents. If you see a kid at the park on his/her parent’s phone, skip the judging, because… who knows what today was like for the child or the parent? The truth is, bucking the system is hard for all of us.

Prolonged, unscheduled time… especially if no neighbor kids are hopping over (my boys don’t have any neighbor kids nearby, the way I did as a child)… It’s a guarantee for boredom.

And I don’t know about your kids, but my kids get pretty demanding when they’re bored. They whine. They turn fussy. And they’re not the pleasantest people to be around.

For a bit.

But if I can just push past their frustration, if I can force myself not to solve their problems, something magical occurs.

The piece of PVC pipe lying outside becomes a cane, as one son transforms into an old man. A tree becomes a goblin to attack. A bucket becomes a ship on the high seas.

Even at three years old, their creativity has no limits… unless I give in. 

Or rush them off to a scheduled event.

When I’m tempted, it helps to remember that fostering imagination isn’t about helping my kids have some “ideal” childhood. That may also be good, but we’re raising future adults. I want them to be kind, empathetic adults who know how to solve problems. Fostering imagination is actually about helping my kids to become the kind of people I will want to be friends with when they’re adults. 

Pretend play is the place children prepare for adulthood. They solve complex problems, cooperate with others, and practice empathy.

That’s the impetus for pushing through the hardness of boredom.

We need to let our kids play more. We need to let them experience boredom. 

Because empathy.

loose parts for imagination and empathy

How to encourage imaginative play

Recess used to be a given, and if there was no other time in the day, a child would certainly have the opportunity for free play at recess. That’s not the case any more. Meanwhile, schools are sending home more and more homework, taking up even a child’s free time at home.

So how do we make it more likely that our children will engage in imaginative play every day? The truth is I’m as much on this journey as you, but here are a few starting points:

  1. Read out loud to your children for as long as they will allow it. I remember my family reading aloud in long car rides as a teenager. There’s not an age limit to it. All fictional books use a child’s imagination in so many fantastic ways and create opportunities to empathize with the characters of the story. However, a book read out loud also creates a language of imagination between siblings. Since everybody is reading about Harry Potter, suddenly sticks become wands, and brooms set them up for games of Quidditch.
  2. Give your kids loose parts. Loose parts are toys or ordinary items that a child can take to make into something else. A kitchen set is only a kitchen. A car is only a car. But some things (loose parts) are whatever your child makes them. Blocks are a great example. One day they might be a castle, and the next they’re a factory or Rapunzel’s tower. Play dough, rock collections, and paint also are favorites in our house with that same creative potential. But just about any “collection” works: random swaths of fabric, a set of cups, ribbons, and sand can all open the world of creativity. 
  3. Protect free time with the same vigilance as you do their academics. Don’t overschedule. Free time isn’t screen time. Screen time has to be scheduled in between those protected blocks of free time. If your child’s school is sending home too much homework to allow for free time, get together with some other parents and go meet with your child’s teacher or principal. Remember, this matters more than violin lessons, karate class, or learning a second language.
  4. Suggest without dictating. You’re going to have days where the words “I’m bored” echo off your walls repeatedly. Get involved, but make your kids lead the imaginative process. 

For my boys, this might look like, “You’re bored!? Oh my! Captain, how could you be bored on a day like this? Why today we sail out!” Then proceed to ask them where the ship is, what’s to be used for sails, etc., etc. Then get out of the way of their play once they’re deep enough into it to no longer need you.

Note: Imagination makes big messes. Sailing the high seas on pillows with blankets for sails leaves a hurricane-level aftermath. I’m not good at what’s supposed to happen after this. I’d love any and every comment about how you get kids to own the cleanup process after imaginative play. I’m failing on this one.

Let’s raise the expectation of imaginative play

I think we have to band together on this. We have to talk about what we’re not doing, as much as the cool things our kids are doing. I dare you: post on Facebook or Instagram all the things you’re not signing your kids up for. Tell the world you’re protecting your kid’s boredom.

If you do, please share on our Facebook page too.

And help your child navigate limits in front of screens. It’s hard. It deserves a separate post most likely. But we’ve got to persist in this one.

Because imagination. Because empathy. Because kindness.

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