Just imagine! A few kitchen chairs and clean bedsheets become a fortress deep in the Hundred Acre Wood. One wooden spoon is a microphone, and two more are drumsticks. A stack of old newspapers is a dragon egg of paper mâché waiting to happen. Oh, the possibilities!

Play is a part of evolutionary culture and an essential aspect of your child’s health and development. Play can prepare children for the complexity of everyday life, regulates the body’s response to stress, improves overall brain structure, and promotes a healthy drive for goals. Play and learning are inextricably linked as skills are honed in a fun, imaginative way.

But exactly what does “imaginative play” mean? What are you supposed to do? Will you need to buy certain toys and stock up on crafting materials? What if you only have one child? What if you live in a tiny apartment?

What if you haveno… imagination… ?

Simply, it’s role play. It’s acting out various tasks and plots. It’s expressing positive and negative feelings, discovering choices, and experiencing the outcome of multiple decisions in a safe, controlled environment. Imaginative play is pretend play. Saving the princess, slaying the dragon, and camping under the living room stars are all age-old examples.

As defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), play “is an activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, and results in joyful discovery. Play is voluntary and often has no extrinsic goals; it is fun and often spontaneous.”

“Imaginative” play is different from “active” play. Active play relates to games of tag, swinging on swings, sliding down slides, and hiking through the woods. Imaginative play is make-believe and fantasy. It’s curiouser and curiouser because we can’t wake up the sleeping giant who sold my gold doubloons to a troll living under the stairs.

Psychologists may define imaginative play as, “the acting out of stories which involve multiple perspectives and the playful manipulation of ideas and emotions.”

It’s your child making sense of this world.

Creative, open-ended play with both peers and parents is how children learn to socially bond, respect others, communicate, and balance personal emotions with the emotions of others.

Play increases the bond between a parent and child, creating a safe, stable, and nurturing relationship. The cognitive, social, emotional, and language development that occurs builds a strong foundation for stress management and social-emotional resilience.

There are many benefits gained when a parent and child engage in healthy, imaginative play together. In addition to those mentioned above, imaginative play can:

  • lower anxiety
  • improve academic skills
  • decrease disruptive behaviors
  • increase understanding of literature
  • increase emotional competence
  • practice and acquire negotiation and sharing skills
  • express and explore feelings
  • exercise logical reasoning skills
  • improve concentration and focus

Decide if your entire home is available, if specific areas are off-limits, or if only one room is designated for play space — though, one empty corner in a room is all a child really needs. If there isn’t an empty corner to use, go underneath the kitchen table. (Powerful things are revealed beneath a kitchen table!)

There’s no need to spend money on new toys for pretend play. A cardboard box can turn into a boat, a race car, a dollhouse, or a tunnel portal to another world — everything and anything you or your child can think of. Attach a sheet to the corner and drape the fabric out for a lean-to tent. Canopies and play tents add worlds of fun to imaginative play.

Put a box of dress-up clothes full of hats, scarves, bandannas, old dresses and suits, purses, wigs, gloves, and fake glasses underneath. Add another box full of random odds and ends, like Tupperware containers, plastic flowers, tea cups, an old cord phone, an empty paper towel roll, dolls, and stuffed animals. Make sure you can store these items safely.

Once a month, go through the box, take out a few items and replace them with something else. This will keep your child’s play exciting and inviting. Consider turning old, mismatched socks into puppets. If you stumble upon a pair of binoculars in the attic, toss them in.

Make sure all items are safe and age-appropriate for your child (and remember you will potentially have to listen to anything that creates sound many, many times).

Show interest in whatever your child does during this pretend-play time. Your reinforcement is vital to their self-acceptance and security in openly playing. Let your child run the show. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that learning thrives when children are given control of their actions.

If your child struggles to come up with ideas during play, print or write out various scenarios on small strips of paper, fold them up, and put them into a jar. Whenever your child needs to, they can reach into the jar and pull out an adventure.

If your child asks you to play, say, “Yes!” Try to play with your child every day, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. Arrange playdates with other children of similar age as often as you can. Using imagination with peers is just as important as with parents but provides other experiences.

One of the most important reasons to incorporate imaginative play into your child’s life is not to push intelligence and education, but to provide supportive, warm interactions and relationships. As a parent, you’ll get to observe your child’s budding interests and have a better understanding of how they communicate.

Birth to 2 years

  • Imitate the sounds, the coos and ma-ma-mas, your baby makes. When you baby smiles, smile back. This reinforcement is play that reinforces social-emotional skills.
  • Read stories and sing aloud to your child. Use different voices and facial expressions. Incorporate different rhythms and help your little one put movement to the beat.
  • Put your baby in a carrier or wrap against your body as you vacuum, sing, and dance — maybe to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”?
  • Hold your baby in different positions to see the world from different perspectives, holding those tiny, little feet, and moving them as if they were pedaling a bicycle.
  • Play peekaboo. It’s a very important, brain-building game. Parents will enjoy seeing how the “now I see you, now I don’t” concept inspires countless little giggles of fun.
  • Show your baby bright, colorful objects in various shapes. Let your baby hold these objects, put the objects in their mouth, explore the objects. (First make sure the objects are safe for baby to play with!)
  • Hold a mirror in front of your baby’s face and let them see and explore facial expressions.

2 to 5 years of age

  • Take your child to interesting new places, like the park, zoo, supermarket, beach, and library, to expose different environments, characters, and scenarios and to explore and observe new backgrounds.
  • Go on a short walk. A 2012 study found that only 51 percent of parents take their children outside to walk or play each day, and some kindergarten classes have removed recess altogether.
  • On your outings, ask questions. Point out things like a little bug and ask your child what life it would be like if they were that bug. (Can you imagine being that small? Are we giants to that bug? Where will he go if it rains?) Point to a tree and ask your child what they would do if they lived in that tree. (Should it be hollow, so they can live inside? Does it need a ladder to get up to the higher branches, where they’d build a treehouse? What does the treehouse look like?)
  • Have a picnic or tea party. Invite stuffed animals, superhero figures, and siblings to attend.
  • Read to your child regularly. Later, ask your child to recount the story and then act it out. Pay attention to which character they decide to portray. This is where you’ll gain invaluable insight to your child’s inner emotions and outlook on the world around them.
  • Sing songs and play rhythms together. Find random objects around the house and create a musical band. An empty bucket and a wooden spoon are drums. Rubber bands stretched around an empty shoebox become a guitar. Fill an empty toilet paper roll with dry, uncooked rice and fill an empty can with pennies. Cover and seal off any openings and you have two shakers with two different sounds. What else can you add to your musical band?
  • Schedule playdates. Give the children various whimsical scenes and roles to act out. Have them put on a performance.

5 to 7 years of age

  • Open a restaurant. Let your child plan a menu and have them ask you for your order. Whether they create an imaginary five-course meal at the fanciest of eateries or tell you all about 10 disgusting smoothie flavors (banana sparkle pop tart smoothie), try it all. Ask for more. Ask if there are any specials being offered. This game provides hours of fun.
  • Build a city out of Legos or blocks.
  • Play school. Have your child bring out various stuffed animals, action figures, dolls, and ask your child to be the teacher.
  • Sing songs and read stories with your child. Mix it up to see if they are paying attention. Say, “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as paper!” Does your child correct you? Does your child join in, adding add another layer of silliness to the next nursery rhyme?
  • Be explorers. Go for walks outside. Beforehand, make a list of things to find. Along the way, cross each discovered item off the list. Collect unique leaves or rocks.
  • Turn a cardboard box into… anything. A car, a plane, a turtle shell, a house, a cave… let them decide and see what unfolds.
  • Write and illustrate a book together. It’s as easy as grabbing a handful of plain, white paper, folding the pages in half, and digging in.
  • Be scientists! Wear old, oversized, white button-down shirts and fake glasses. Nerd it up. There are many safe experiments with little to no clean-up. For example, make a lava lamp using an empty 2-liter soda bottle, some vegetable oil, food coloring, and fizzing tablets (like Alka-Seltzer). Or make play dough out of flour, salt, cream of tartar, oil, and water.

There are so many ways you and your child can come together for imaginative play. Enjoy every moment!

From peekaboo to cops and robbers (and when they are even older, from cosplay and extracurricular activities to college electives), you’ll have direct access to the inner world that is your child’s mind.

Discover the world from your child’s point of view, revel in the friendships realized as they interact with other peers, and build a reserve of memories to last a lifetime.