Updated: Sep 24, 2022
By Jill Kelsey
“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” –Henry David Thoreau
Your child’s development is in your hands. Providing experiences and quality learning tools is crucial to development. This includes tapping into and nurturing your child’s imagination. The interest in learning – in part – comes from an active imagination. How can you encourage your child to be imaginative? A child begins to engage in pretend/imaginative play somewhere around 18-24 months of age. Your young child comes hard-wired to learn and explore the world around them and pretend play is one of the lesser-known milestones that you can really help with. You will notice your child imitating you when they are playing; they may pretend to sweep the floor, bake some cookies, or feed a doll. Encourage this play behavior by getting on the floor with them and taking an active interest in what they are doing and saying. Focus on what they are interested in and expand on it.
What are some other things you can do to encourage the development of your child’s imagination?
Allow your child to engage in off-line, free-play as often as possible. Over-structured environments suppress the creative drive and can limit decision-making and question-asking opportunities. Be sure the free play allows for ample opportunity for your child to play outdoors with water, plants, and dirt. Do you remember making mud-pies and flower and leaf soup as a child? Here are some additional ideas for outdoor play: https://outdoorclassroomday.com/resources/
Do age-appropriate art projects together. Messy projects are ok too because they give your child the opportunity to really engage their senses within the overall experience; the more senses involved, the better. Not only is doing artwork great for developing creativity and imagination, but it is also great for brain development.
Ask your child what they think about different experiences or objects in their environment. Ask them questions about their favorite toy – even if they are silly questions like, “What is your giraffe’s favorite thing to do or eat?”
Provide as many opportunities for new ‘experiences’ as you possibly can. This does not need to be a different outing every day. It can be as simple as showing your child how to tie a bow or use a zipper. You can give your child cardboard boxes to build forts with. (Remove all sharp staples and extra tape first.) There are so many online resources for providing age-appropriate creative-play opportunities for your child. If you are a Pinterest parent, then you are probably already on that! If not, it is a good resource.
Make sure to keep plenty of props available. By this, I mean costumes, pretend food, a tea set, kid-sized garden tools, kid-sized furniture, musical instruments, legos, differently shaped blocks, balloon animal gear, etc.
Read to and with your child – often. It may come as a surprise to you, but not every culture makes it a priority to read books to their children. You do not need to have a new book every day to keep your child interested in reading and learning. You can use the catalogs or newspaper inserts you receive in the mail to maximize word power and elicit a string of questions. (TIP: use catalogs that are NOT filled with toys or they will ask for the toys.) Opt instead for catalogs that are full of scientific gadgets, clothing, housewares, equipment, grocery items, etc. To develop a love of reading actual books, you can take your child to the library. You can also subscribe to a monthly delivery like Bookroo, a monthly, curated children’s book subscription! As book explorers, Bookroo discovers the hidden gems not already on your shelves and brings them straight to your door. With help from a panel of approximately 12 families attending Stanford University who read the books with their own children and rate them, Bookroo uses those ratings to help select the best books in each box every month! Choose from a Board Book Box for ages 0-2 or a Picture Book Box for ages 2-6. This would make a great holiday or birthday gift idea!
Pencil in free-play with other kids. Free-play and schedules generally don’t mix; however, in this case, it does! Caregivers can enjoy some adult time while the kids pretend away in the afternoon. The children do not need to be the same age either. Mixed ages within a year or two are fine. Just be sure to keep an eye out on the children’s interactions and behaviors to make sure everyone is being mindful of others around them.
The important thing is to remember that your young baby or toddler is primed for learning. Once they reach the critical developmental age for pretend play, you will begin to see a very fun side of your child. You will also learn a lot more about yourself because they will be imitating you quite often! Set your best example now and give them all the support you can. Below are some additional references to inspire you further: