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The Importance of Creative Play


Creative play is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons that children need to have unstructured time built into their days. I would actually argue that everyone should have unstructured time built into their days, but children need it the most! When my kids (aged 7, 5, 4, and 1) are left to devise their own form of entertainment, they gain several important lifelong skills:

The ability to self-entertain

I love modern technology, but consistently turning to media for entertainment can lead to an incredible dependence on the internet and technology! I think that all of us – children as well as adults – benefit from knowing how to create our own entertainment. Have a bored child? Give them the choice of solving the problem on their own, or doing extra chores. If they pick the extra chores, hooray! Your house is cleaner! If they decide to entertain themselves, they are on the path of discovery for hobbies that may help them de-stress and process difficult days for life.

It’s fine to set limits to how they self-entertain. My kids have to clean up the toys they dump out, and if there is any fighting we switch to chores. Sometimes they are given the choice of extra chores or playing outside.


The development of language arts skills

Children learn a lot about plot and character development by creating their own imaginative plots! Over time, I have seen my kids’ games become increasingly complex. I also see the same characters and games appearing over and over again, providing the opportunity to revise a plot and refine characters.

Emotional self-regulation

I often see my kids processing things that have been on their minds while they play. They spend a lot of time teaching their toys how to behave appropriately, and enjoy testing boundaries within an imaginary world, where consequences are equally imaginary! I often get valuable insights and parenting ideas by listening in on the ways they “parent” their toys!

Social skills practice

Pretend play is a wonderful low-stress space for practicing social skills! Besides having characters test social boundaries, kids learn a lot about leadership and team work when they engage in pretend play together. The most long-lasting pretend games in my home are the ones where each child has an important role to play. I also find that my kids occupy different roles depending on the game they are playing and which combination of children are playing. Sometimes even one-year-old Anna gets to be in charge – and she loves that!

Creative pretend play doesn’t always look like much. The short clip below isn’t fancy, but it shows a few ways in which children can explore emotions and even bring together seemingly incongruous characters and worlds (Star Wars meets gigantic purple elephant!) into a play experience that builds relationships and keeps them learning!



What pretend play scenarios do your kids enjoy? How do you promote creative play in your home?

MaryAnne lives is a craft loving educator, musician, photographer, and writer who lives in Silicon Valley with her husband Mike and their four children.

27 thoughts on “The Importance of Creative Play”

  1. I completely agree. I love watching my kids play and hearing what they come up with. They often switch roles with my oldest being the baby and my youngest playing the big sister.

    1. My kids switch roles like that, too – and I remember doing the same thing as a kid! Sometimes it’s fun to walk in somebody else’s shoes for a while.

  2. Elisa | blissfulE

    Your “chores vs outside” and “chores vs think-of-something-yourself” ideas are great! I will begin using that approach immediately. My kids love being outside, but they don’t always want to go when I tell them to.

    My kids have different pretend play depending on location. For instance, currently outside they are “at war with Japan” or “Swiza” (a country they made up). They are king, queen, princess, and princling. Or sometimes they rescue orphans (the two younger kids). Different things like that. Inside, they build birthing pools, birth babies, and “give numnums”. They also “swim” and hunt bears and crocodiles. In the car Vi and David are kittens who eat ice cream, and Nikki and Michael buy a 20-story home in Israel for $20 (each contributing half) and both have jobs they work at.

    My kids work faster (music practice, chores, schoolwork) when they know they’ll get more free time if they do. It’s an essential part of every day.

    1. lol at their 20-story home in Israel! How funny that they have pretend play defined by where they are! I actually remember doing that as a kid, but haven’t seen my children do it yet.

  3. Shutting off the screens is a good place to start but also just giving kids things like cardboard boxes, markers, scissors will spur creative play. Also turning the couch into a fort by using the cushions for the walls. One on the side, one on top (on top of the side one and the back of couch) and throw a blanket over the top for a door.

  4. I had to laugh at your Star Wars and elephant reference because I did plenty of that as a kid! I remember playing with Barbies (it was the 80s; everyone had Barbies!) and we didn’t have a Ken so my sister and I would use our baby boy dolls as Barbie’s partner lol.

    And I love all your reasons and find that they apply to my three year old. I’m constantly amazed at what he conjures out of his boredom!

  5. I think my toddler is just beginning to show interest in pretend play and I am looking forward to it! I think creative play is so important for their overall development – I would encourage it any day over electronic devices.

  6. Thanks for the reminder. It is an important part of their growing up. I too like to be invisible and listen or watch kids play. I learned a lot that way.

  7. I love this. Since we are house sitting on a farm for a few days we are enjoying lots of free creative play here (We haven’t figure out how to make the tv work so lots of outdoor play)

    I caught myself a few time today, just looking at them 3 playing together, creating their own imaginary world… it was the most precious thing to see.

    BTW you are so right with all that you have pointed out in this post :-)

    1. I love watching my kids play outside! We have been eating dinner outside, and it’s really tempting to just sit and watch them play forever instead of pulling them inside to get ready for bed…

  8. Your little video is so adorable! I am so with you on unstructured time. I see my daughter craving it now when her work week got so busy with extracurricular activities. I often wish though that she had an “easy-to-reach” playmate – she spends most of her unstructured time reading, and while it’s great, I wish she would spend more time in creative play.

  9. Yep! I STRUGGLE with trying to absorb myself in unstructured time, what with computers and my phone and all- and I realize how important it is for my kids to see me doing what I’m having them do. But then when I force myself to just sit and do nothing- sort of just take in everything that’s going on around me, it’s wonderful. You start to feel so much more connected with your family and with everything going on around you.

    1. Modern technology definitely makes it easy to shove unstructured time out of life – but I think it is critically important – for both personal and family peace and happiness.

    2. Elisa | blissfulE

      I try to “unplug” each Sunday, which allows me to relax more fully and immerse myself in my family. Still, I have a hard time with this the rest of the week…

  10. Oh, I so agree with you! Creative pretend play is very important for kids, and it’s so often neglected by both parents and schools.

    My kids pull in whatever we’ve been reading or watching lately. I know for a long time after their Uncle Sam died they had a lot of ghost friends and a lot of death going on in their play.

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