Posted by: coachingparents | July 2, 2008

The Critical Role of Imagination in Childhood Development

Imagination is a potent ingredient that we as busy parents often dismiss and brush aside as mere childhood play.  But imagination is a critical component to learning — one that serves as the foundation for a host of necessary life skills. 

Self-dialog is a component of imaginative play that helps children learn to overcome obstacles and master the art of self-regulation. Unstructured imaginative play also serves to round out a child’s whole-person development. 

Recent studies indicate that imaginative play has changed drastically in the past 60 years, and that children’s overall development is suffering because of it. One study conducted in 2001 intended to compare results to a similar study from the late 1940’s. Its goal was to test children’s capacity for self-regulation.

In the 1940’s study, the researches tested children ages 3, 5 and 7 by asking them to stand perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds could not stand still at all, the 5-year olds could for about three minutes, and the most of the 7-year-olds could stand still for as long as the researchers asked.

Compare this to the astonishing results from the 2001 study at the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, where the 5-year-olds could only stand for a duration equal to that of the previous level of 3-year olds. More tellingly, the 7-year-olds of today were barely approaching the level of 5-year-olds from over a half century ago. Psychologist Elena Bodrova commented, “The results were very sad.” 

Why is imaginative play such a critical component in developing self-regulation?  During periods of make-believe and pretend, children engage in self-dialog – a life skill that helps empower them to learn to overcome obstacles, master cognitive and social skills and manage their emotions. 

It is during this period of self-dialog, or private speech, that children decide on desired objectives and then strategize ways to accomplish those feats. Self-dialog is also a tool that many adults still utilize when faced with challenges or problems. By talking things through, we’re able to process situations, analyze them and design solutions for them.

Studies also show that creative and imaginative play can aid in other areas of development such as memory, attitude, planning, attention and creativity, as well as help children expand and hone their language and communication skills.

A key change that many scientists are concerned with is the fact that until the advent of television, childhood play revolved around some type of activity, vs. today’s usual object-centric type of play.

Before television, children utilized everyday objects to create scenarios and to imagine a world of their own. If a boy found a stick, it was not merely a stick — it had the capacity to become a knight’s sword, a fishing pole, or a Native-American spear.
Today’s product commercialization has removed the realm of limitless possibilities, and now tends to pigeonhole children into a pre-conceived situation such Darth Vader’s Lightsaber, where the intent of the object is already clear and denies the child a chance to find a creative purpose for the object.
Another area of concern is the loss of unstructured time that allows children to engage in imaginative play. From soccer and baseball games to piano and karate lessons, children today have far less time than past generations to let their imaginations run free. And while leagues and lessons offer many benefits to children, the fact is that when kids are engaged in structured activities, they are being regulated by the adults in their lives and not themselves.
Scientists have noted that the more structured the level of play, the more children’s private speech and self-dialog decline. By striving to structure most or all of a child’s free time, kids of today have far less time available for imaginative play (which requires they police themselves.
Compound this with the dearth of electronic devices that serve not to expand children’s minds but to numb them, and you can see why children today have fallen behind in their abilities to self-regulate.

Why is self-regulation such an important life skill? Poor self-regulation skills (also referred to as executive function) correlate strongly to increased dropout rates and gravitation towards substance abuse and other behaviors that put children not only at risk, but jeopardize their entire future.
Studies have shown that good self-regulation skills are a better predictor of success in school and life than a child’s IQ.  Children that master good executive function will be able to control their own behavior, manage their feelings, and keep themselves on task – all elements that contribute to educational and cognitive development and success. 

What are some ways you as a parent can encourage imaginative play in your chbild? Here are just a few to get you started:

  • Limit television viewing and time spent playing computer or electronic games
  • Schedule time for imaginative play, just as you would schedule time for piano lessons or soccer practice. (You don’t need to tell your child you’re doing this, as you then impose structure.)
  • Encourage interaction between peers by letting your child have friends over or go to a friend’s house.
  • Peer interaction often drives the imaginative process, and develops children’s social, language and problem-solving abilities.
  • While play dates are all the rage, make sure that you or other parents allow children to interact together at their own level and pace, instead of dictating for them how the play date unfolds.

Parents can also interact with children in a variety of ways that let children master creativity through the use of imagination. These include:

Creating stories together, where you each take turns adding a thread to the tale. You can start the process by finding an everyday object and verbalizing a sentence or two about it to create a scenario. Then, let your child take over and embellish the tale from there. As you go back and forth adding to the story, you’ll stimulate and challenge both of your imaginations.

Provide tools for make believe. Have objects like pots and pans with spoons, and building blocks and craft supplies on hand that you keep in the “Imagination Drawer.” Then, make sure to direct your child to the magic drawer when she says, “I’m bored.” 

Play the “Imagine If” game.  Whether you’re in your garden or driving along in the car, look for objects and then start conversations with, “Imagine if …” – i.e., “Imagine if roses were blue,” or “Imagine if birds swam and fish flew.” This helps children hone their visual processing and cognitive skills, as well as opening them up to seeing the world in new ways.
Just as exercise is important to the physical development of muscles, imaginative play allows children to build their creative and problem-solving “muscles.” By making sure to incorporate imaginative play in our children’s lives, we give them the capacity to become self-regulated problem solvers – ones whose futures are limited only by their boundless imagination.

Source List

Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills — NPR

Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control – NPR



  1. As a mom and someone who works for CedarWorks swingset company, this post was so relevant. Kids need to create and imagine. Modern toys do this for them and require so little creativity. At Cedarworks we make big tools for little people with big imaginations. Providing a tool that requires interaction can encourage creative play in even the most technology-dependent child.
    Anyways, great post!
    Liz R.

  2. Thanks Elizabeth for your comments. I found many children with difficulties in spatial relations, poor coordination and such when I was a special education teacher. Only later did I realize that children who don’t get carried, rocked, or have movement in their early years never learn to process information kinesthetically. They can’t move their bodies in space well. Then as adults, not all of them can parallel park!


  3. Good understanding between parents and children but topics are lesser in numbers.
    Some more topics on which you may write are:
    Unreasonable demands of children
    Unreasonable induldgence by parents
    How important are values for parents and how do the inculcate them in their child.

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