Imaginative Play

Imaginative play tends to receive more attention than any other type of play from the experts concerned with observing, diagnosing, treating and planning for the behaviour of young children. It is in this type of play that a child is ‘in charge’ of his playthings rather than them dictating what he is doing. It can be a useful window on what a child is thinking and feeling, often revealing thoughts and reactions he may not be able to put into words or would not even if he had the vocabulary to do so. But it is all too easy to make snap decisions or moral judgements about a child or his background on the basis of what is observed or heard in imaginative play. This is both superficial and dangerous. This play reflects a mixture of what he knows, feels, fears, hopes, would like to be the case and has misunderstood, as well as experiences he is reinforcing or trying to understand. For a child who appears to have a problem the therapeutic nature of the play itself may be enough. For other children who through their play indicate a consistent and persistent problem it may be possible to structure the play situation rather than directly tackle the child himself.

Imaginative play can take place with few props or playthings depending on the age, resources and stage of playing with others reached by each individual child. Some basic playthings are needed eventually as can be seen by observing children in any situation, either at home or in a nursery group where there are no dolls, no provision for home play, no toy cars, no adventure situation. The children will invent and improvise albeit very crudely. This kind of play overlaps with every other kind once a child is confident and capable enough in handling material to add the extra element of his imagination. The three-year-old trying a climbing frame for the first time has to devote all his energy and thought to the necessary physical skills. Once he can climb he can afford to have half of his mind taken up with thoughts of ladder climbing, being a monkey, a steeplejack (if he has seen one or been told a story about one – he can only reflect and refract what he knows). Once he has learned how to build with bricks there is scope for him to build what he wishes rather than just as he can. Once he has developed some control over brush, paint and paper he can then start using them to make pictures. Other factors which affect the development and progress of imaginative play is the relationship with other children, how long the child can concentrate, how well he remembers from day to day what he did yesterday.