The Vital Links Between Creativity, Imagination, and Childhood Play

The Vital Links Between Creativity, Imagination, and Childhood Play

Creativity isn’t just important to artists. It’s the ability to come up with new ideas and develop novel solutions to complex problems. And creativity requires imagination - the ability to think “outside the box.” While we might be led to believe that creativity and imagination are something that some people are born with, they are qualities that we develop during our formative years.


You’ve probably seen it yourself: your toddler talking to cuddly toys, little ones on scooters making “vroom” noises as they zip around the garden. Imaginative play may just look cute to adults, but according to psychologists, it’s incredibly important. Play is the number one way in which children begin to develop several important qualities that are all based on the ability to use one’s imagination.


What the Experts Say About Imaginative Play


Play is so vital to our development that researches have undertaken a multitude of studies on its benefits. Apart from helping to develop our problem-solving abilities, play that involves using the imagination also stimulates the development of language skills. A team of researchers found that children who played “let’s pretend” games developed greater verbal sophistication than those who did not. So, apart from helping us to think creatively, play can also help us to express ourselves better. After all, what’s the use of a great idea if you can’t explain it?


But there’s more. Creativity should be a positive energy that helps other people. Play helps us to understand different scenarios and how other people experience them. Research conducted in 2006 showed that kids who play imaginative games have a better ability to “self-regulate” or control negative behaviors like aggression and have more empathy for others. Empathy is the ability to “walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins,” and it’s certainly a quality that requires imagination.

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In 2012, a study of Nobel Prize winners found that winners were likely to have invented make-believe worlds when they were kids - more so than their less-creative peers.


How We Can Encourage Creative Play


It’s your child’s imagination, so how much it gets used is outside your control, but you can certainly encourage imaginative play. Once again, experts have been hard at work trying to uncover the ways in which parents can promote play that engages fantasy and role-playing.


  • Talking to your kids and giving them information about the world around them may come naturally to you, but it’s one of the ways you can spark their imaginations. Tell them about fossils, and you’ll probably see them playing at being archeologists. Tell them about space flight, and the couch becomes their spaceship.


  • Reading bedtime stories is an obvious way to transport children into an imaginary world. I remember having the ambition to be a pirate after Mom read Treasure Island to us. It probably wasn’t what she had in mind at the time, but I’m sure it did me no harm.


  • Fantasy movies may have got a bad rap from those who label watching as being “too passive.” But British researchers tested this theory and found that movie-watching can stimulate children’s imaginations. Think back to your own childhood. Did you watch Star Wars and find yourself “becoming” a Luke Skywalker equivalent during playtime?


  • Toys are the most obvious way to get children playing imaginative games. From cars to baby dolls, to Sci-Fi alien figurines and the mundane-seeming mini-brand toys that kids collect, each toy will suggest some form of imaginative play. You won’t need to look far for inspiration. Nowadays, there are some really cool toys for just about anyone out there - you’ll be tempted to join the fun too!

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  • Give them time to invent games. These days, we’re so busy and achievement-driven, and there are so many things to do, that over-structuring your child’s day is a real possibility. After all, there’s school, there’s sport, there’s homework, and before you know it, it’s bedtime!


Kids Find a Way, but They Will Always Value Our Help


From the moment our children start to interact with the world around them, they begin to use their imaginations. They’ll do it even if we don’t create a conducive environment - I remember playing with the neighbor’s kids when I was a child. They had a strict, almost-Edwardian upbringing in which they were expected to be “little adults.” But they still found ways to use their imaginations to play. An empty matchbox became a “car,” an old hot-water bottle swathed in a blanket became a “doll.”


I remember feeling sorry for them because we had wonderful toys and a Mom who told us stories and interesting things about nature, science, and far-away countries. They, on the other hand, had to hide their “toys” and behave seriously whenever the adults were around. Sometimes, I find myself wondering how this affected them. Do they feel the need to hide their creativity to this day?


The bottom line? Kids will find a way to use their imaginations because it’s a natural and important part of their cognitive development. Fostering imagination isn’t just fun. It’s also one of the best ways to learn and grow. Sure, we won’t give in to things like a child’s desire for instant gratification, but we should be proud of our role in creating a relaxed environment in which our kids feel free to say things like: “I’m an airplane! Look, Mom!”
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