If you want your children to conquer fears, build self-confidence, master social skills and hone their trouble-shooting capabilities, the American Academy of Pediatrics has a prescription for that — unstructured imaginative play.
Make time for unstructured play
It’s easy to hurry through each day with school, schedules, sports and extracurricular activities planned on what might seem like a never-ending loop… but it’s important to make time for completely unstructured, good old-fashioned play. Unstructured free play is child-directed, with no agenda, without planned activities or adult guidance. If you let your child initiate what he wants to make, create or play with, and allow him to direct how he spends his free play time, you’re setting him up to build critical skills that will help him later in life.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts and to learn self-advocacy skills.”
Engage at their level
While unsupervised play definitely has its pluses, there’s also a lot to be gained from playing with your child. When you ditch outside distractions (like cell phones, emails and TV) and fully engage with your child in play, it can help strengthen the bond between you. Get down on their level and see the world from their point of view. Let them direct the activities while you give them your full attention as an active listener and participant. From building sofa-cushion forts in your living room to sitting on the floor for an elaborate make-believe tea party, showing your children that you’re all-in and ready to play in their world opens the door for you to really connect in a way that truly resonates with them.
Take it outside
Let nature be your guide. Whether you walk to a local park or even explore your backyard, there’s more room and less restrictions when your child is free to let her imagination loose outside. Twigs become makeshift pirate swords, bushes become fortresses, trees become lookout points and mud pretty much has endless possibilities.
Reassess your toy box
While the genius of imaginative play is taking something ordinary, or nothing at all, and making it into something out of this world, actual physical toys have their time and place, too. However, if you really want to foster imaginative play, you might need to reassess your toy box. Make sure you have plenty of active play toys — toys that allow your child to manipulate the outcome and be in the action — like building blocks and Lego sets. Dolls and stuffed animals (that aren’t necessarily armed with batteries, bells and whistles) can also help foster your child’s imagination since they encourage make-believe and are the perfect companions for pretend play.