It doesn't take much effort to envision a shipping container as a pirate ship when you're 3 or 4—and, in fact, that sort of make-believe is critical to a child's development. "Imaginative play fosters creativity and helps children explore the world," says child psychologist David Elkind, Ph.D., author of The Power of Play. Make-believe also has therapeutic value, he says: "Children sometimes feel weak in comparison to adults, but when they engage in it they take the role of adults and heroes."
Thankfully, kids are hardwired to play pretend. In fact, in a recent Motherboard Moms poll nearly 75 percent of moms said their preschoolers engage in make-believe activities every day. That's great, Elkind says, because "Imaginations and creativity are like muscles: If you don't use them you lose them." Here are 14 easy ways to help get your little ones' creative juices flowing.
Sturdy, simple, and timeless, a set of wooden blocks gives young children some of their first experiences with constructing, stacking, and arranging. "They can build with them, learn size and weight and different conventions, and also be creative," says child psychologist Elkind. Wooden blocks top his list of imaginative play kick-starters because they "allow children to express themselves without imposition from adults."
Sure, these plastic pieces seem mysteriously drawn to that netherworld under the couch, but hey, don't hate: Once your kiddo has the motor skills to snap and pry these genius little pieces, the sky's the limit for creative play that happens to painlessly teach all kinds of lessons about diligence, patterns, and process at the same time.
Erin Jones, a mom and small-business owner in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, sees the proof in her 10-year-old son Aidan's longtime obsession with the tiny colorful plastic blocks. "He's built all the kits, big and small, and will spend days focused on a single project," she says. "He has a tub filled with spare parts, and he'll climb into it and wade through until he finds that tiny, single tab piece that completes his battleship." And as Christina Tutor, a mom of two boys in Birmingham, Alabama, says: "There is no wrong way to use Legos, so childrens' imaginations can go in any direction."
Art + science = this groovy stuff. You can purchase Plaster of Paris inexpensively or make your own at home (2 parts diluted white glue to 1 part warm water is a popular recipe). Older children will love creating their own objects and watching goo turn solid. "Hand prints, footprints, globes molded on balloons, masks for Halloween—its simple nature makes it indispensable," says Jones. "And it's helped Aidan understand things in school. Last week, he brought me a Plaster of Paris volcano. We put it next to the one he made when he was 3. He was amazed to see the differences."
Give a kid a few cast-off cardboard containers and a roll of packing tape, and before long he'll be telling you that it's "not a box!"—just like the bunny in the stellar children's book Not a Box by Antoinette Portis. (Said book is a great way to introduce little ones to the pretend-play possibilities of the humble box.) Is it a skyscraper? A race car? A spaceship? It's whatever your child wants it to be.
Fill a bin with various and sundry pieces of fun clothing and costumes (boas, animal "ears," hats, tutus, masks, purses—just for starters), then sit back and enjoy the show. Kids love to pretend to be certain things—favorite TV characters, not surprisingly, are hugely popular, as are "mommy and daddy," animals, and princesses/princes—but nearly half of moms say their kids have come up with some wacky creations of their own. To wit: "My son's 'Batman' costume consisted of frog design mud boots, gray sweatpants, a T-shirt, a brown woven belt with a Crown Royal bag tied around it, and a red winter hat. It was super hilarious," one Motherboard Mom told us.
The kitchen is the site of so many tools ready to be reborn as toys. Next time you pull out the mixing bowls and measuring cups, throw down some newspaper and let your kiddo dig into "slime," aka a 2-to-1 mixture of cornstarch and water. It makes a great, goopy, rainy-day surprise, perfect for dribbling through texture-curious little fingers. And if those fingers should end up in that little mouth? No worries— it's cornstarch.
Colors, textures, a blank slate for creative expression—what's not to love? This is one of the simplest and best ways for parents and kids to engage in creative play together: You draw and color with your child, and gradually, she'll try to copy you. Later on, an easel will probably keep her engaged for a good long while, as she experiments with shapes and strokes, and builds those motor skills that are so handy when it comes to writing.
Who said child labor was such a no-no? If your child wants to dust and scrub, by all means, let her revel in the adult mimicry. It's a powerful way of discovering the world around her. (And it's not so bad to have a little helper when cleaning the tub, right?) Michelle Owens, mom to Maya, 2, says that cleaning tools are a no-fail "toy" for her busy toddler. But she does try to give her a wide berth and is considering buying pint-size versions of the clean-up tools: "Maya's managed to clock both Scott and me on the head with the big broom when she's been 'helping' us clean!"
A simple swath of fabric is anything but in a child's eyes. "Maya wraps them around her like a boa and prances, drags them like a tail, swaddles her baby and puts her down for a nap, wears them like a cape, plays peek-a-boo, even asks me to drape them over her chair when we eat—quite throne-like," says Maya's mother, Michelle Owens. "Silks" have an especially play-friendly texture and movement, but no kid is going to turn up her nose at her beloved blankie—or even that decorative dishtowel that's just within reach. Let her have at it.
Break out the tiny cups, saucers, demitasse spoons, and stuffed animals: Long before the term went political, a tea party "allowed children to rehearse the roles of adulthood and learn to take the perspective of the other," says Roberta Golinkoff, Ph.D., author of A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool: Presenting the Evidence. "You can set the table with the child, which is a good way to teach mathematics, as the child must use one-to-one correspondence to put out one cup and one spoon for all at the table. And your child can make up the characters in attendance and practice playing roles."
A toddler or preschooler happily chatting it up with his beloved teddy or Elmo or action-figure-du-jour is a pretty sweet sound—not least because this kind of solo play allows you a few much-needed minutes to yourself. (Thank you, Elmo.) While every kid's tolerance for solo play is different, Motherboard Moms report that more than half of their preschoolers can sustain solo play for 15 to 30 minutes. And that's time well spent, says Golinkoff: "The talk that kids engage in during make-believe is directly correlated with how much language kids have a few years later," she notes.
Blanket or sheet + furniture = a magic land like no other, a perfect place for kids to role-play and explore a very early form of independence as masters of their own "domain." "I pull the chairs away from the dining table and throw a king-size comforter over it, allowing it to drape to the floor over the sides and ends of the table," says one Motherboard Mom. "Even at the ages of almost-8 and 12, they'll still play in the fort, but typically pretending that one of them is a mechanic or a veterinarian and the other is bringing in a vehicle or a pet."
When the allure of the fort fades, a dollhouse—with its higher level of lifelikeness—may keep your child fascinated and get him or her thinking all about buildings and spatial relations. And this doesn't have to be a doll's pad, per se: "My son Giacomo has a gnome house," says Katrina Gray, a mom and writer in Nashville. "It has four stories, ladders, trap doors, a swing, a hook, a catapult, and lots of furniture made out of tree bark. He really gets into it and makes up lives for gnomes. He'll play for about a half hour while I get laptop time."
Tempted to play alongside your child? Go ahead, says Golinkoff: "Play along when you see them doing it and initiate it when you can. But don't overdo your involvement, because research shows us that when parents try to run the show, the play shuts down. Let the child be the boss and follow her lead in make-believe play. Let her call the shots!"
Not only can you play with your food when you're 4, you can even call it art. "Finger painting with chocolate pudding on sheets of freezer wrap is beyond fun," says Susan Smithwick, a mom of two and ceramic artist in Nashville. "Or use vanilla pudding, add food coloring, and watch what happens when you add one color to another."