Development FAQ: 24+ months – Entertaining and Educating your Toddler

I’d like to encourage my son of almost three in imaginative play.

How can I encourage my son, who is approaching three, to be more imaginative? He doesn’t play make-believe as I did as a child.

Using imagination does appear to come more easily to some children than others. Providing your son with some props and ideas may help. Many children have a lot of toys, but not all of them need imagination to be played with. I would suggest giving him a few ideas and see if he can build on them. If he enjoys playing with cars, draw a road plan on a long sheet of paper. This is something you could do together using lining paper which you can find in decorating shops. Discuss with him what he would like on his road and draw some simple outlines. Then find some bricks, either wooden or of the construction variety, and “build” houses and shops along the plan. Just showing him one or two may get his imagination going. Let him take over and then be prepared to offer more suggestions if needed. If he has play people or farm animals they could become part of the layout. Many children have farms, car parks and road mats but making his own will encourage him to think and create a world of his own. Once he is involved in making the scene, leave him to think things through alone.

Providing props for role-play is also something to start thinking about. Pretending to be someone else can be a very powerful experience for a small child. He learns more about himself and others by role-play and pretending. Begin a dressing up box and continue to add to it over the next few years. Again, many children have ready-made fireman, doctor, nurse and police outfits, and possibly a few of their favourite TV heroes as well. But you can further their enjoyment by finding other things to enhance their games. A policeman will need a notebook and pencil and maybe a toy phone. A doctor or nurse needs a medical kit, which your child may already have, but it could be enhanced with a few extras such as bandages and a reel of micropore tape for securing them. Teddy patients need beds, so use old shoeboxes with covers made from cloth napkins. Once you begin to think how to improvise, your son will quickly catch on and copy you.

Ask grandparents for old hats, bags, belts etc as well as donating your own when clearing out. Even things such as old store cards and train passes can be used for make believe play. Given a box of props, many children will readily become a “grown up”, a “daddy” or a “bus driver” and begin to use their imagination in thinking how that would feel.

Small children need room to play. Give them space to set out shops, hospitals or police headquarters. Show them how a blanket over chairs or a table can become a house or a den. While their playthings needn’t take up the whole house, be prepared for some untidiness during the day in certain areas. Let it be understood that things do need to be tidied away at the end of the day, but allow their play to be as uninterrupted as possible until that time. Suggest an area for their den that is not going to be in your way throughout the day, but also where you can keep an eye on what is happening.

One of the best ways to encourage a child’s imagination is to read to him daily and also make up stories yourself. Passing time at the doctors waiting room or when caught in traffic can be fun if you begin to weave a story about the situation. Many parents don’t believe they have this ability, but surprise themselves when they find it is very easy if their audience is a pre-schooler who listens intently to every word.