By Educational Psychologist Naomi Burgess
If you think back to when you were younger you can probably remember hours and hours where you just lost yourself, seemingly doing nothing.
However nowadays there is so much pressure on you and your children that it can be really difficult to let them ‘just do NOTHING’.
Childhood can so easily become a time of striving instead of a time of growing; it’s understandable when there is so much competition around, and can be hard to stick to your principles about what you might think is ‘worthwhile’.
Let’s have a little look at why doing ‘nothing’ is such a vital element in growing up, and why imaginary and creative play is crucial.
We’ve got 6 games to encourage play, fantasy, creativity and imagination…
6 games for imaginative and creative play…
1. Pretend play and make believe
Pretend play can be anything from your child playing ‘schools’ to ‘hospitals’ or ‘shops’. They might have props and there’s a fair chance they’ll want you (or even a pet) to join in at some point!
This kind of play is great because it creates a bridge between fantasy and reality. It is a vehicle for children to explore their inner and outer worlds at the same time, and they can begin to recognise their own responses to situations, even if they don’t verbalise them and it’s not conscious.
At pre-school age, a child’s language extends and they are able to use emotional speech and tone, even if they can’t yet talk about their feelings: you probably overhear your child at times talking to their siblings, toys or pets, sometimes telling them off, sometimes being encouraging, sometimes being loving.
This is all part of finding their way in their emotional world, developing empathy and processing their feelings – and it heralds their emerging social qualities.
As a child become more proficient in processing their feelings, we can say that they are developing Emotional Regulation.
This wonderful process is about ‘trying it on for size’ – it’s like dressing up but with feelings, expressions and reflections, and of course, as they get older the sophistication of expression and empathy grows with them, and of course we just carry on ‘trying things on for size’, throughout our lives.
All children have their own little steam engines driving their social and emotional development – we just need to provide them with the opportunities, the space and the encouragement. Pretend play is a great way to do it.
2. Fairy tale fun
Sometimes families might worry that fairy tales are too gruesome and scary – but reading fairy tales with your child fulfils a purpose as well developing literacy skills.
So why not have a fairy tale afternoon – perhaps a fairy tale marathon – where you read lots of fairy tales with your child that will open up a conversation.
Techniques such as ‘watching a film’ or ‘telling a story’ are commonly used in some therapies, precisely because they are considered once-removed and safe.
So you can look at books this way too, and instead of asking your child questions about the stories, why not ask them if they have any questions for you. You might be very surprised at what they want to find out.
Children walk in to a story, identify with characters, and then leave them on a page. It can be such a safe way to experiment with adventure, fear, sadness and excitement, in much the same way as a film.
All children experience inner conflicts as part of their own emotional development and fairy tales, with their often cruel and scary monsters, reflect these conflicts and give children a chance to resolve them, safely, in their own imagination.
3. Dress up
Children love dressing up – sometimes it is for role play and sometimes for performance too.
Give them any clothes you don’t wear any more or visit a charity shop for accessories like scarves, hats, wigs and anything else you can find.
Some things to remember: provide just enough to let them experiment. Too much overwhelms the play. Provide a little hanging rail and a small chest of drawers or cupboard – it helps them to see what’s there and makes it easy for them to tidy up.
Provide clothes that might be gendered and gender neutral; you don’t want anyone to feel left out.
Get some grown-up bits and pieces in there too; children want to emulate you. Never forget that all children are different and some are disabled too! A box of specs without lenses, eye patches, a walking stick, some toys with prostheses, and a mirror.
And, have a word with your child’s preschool or reception class if their provision is not reflecting the great variety of human beings.
Once you’ve given your child what they need – sit back and enjoy your window on their world.
4. Art school
Visual and sculptural art is so exciting, you can use such a variety of media too – play dough, sand, paints, crayons, glue and glitter, clay, ink, wool, thread. You can keep everything clean or you can make as much mess as you like.
You can use your fingers with finger paints. Use it on a wipeable surface or on paper. Finger painting on a washable surface allows you to keep changing what you are doing, – no permanence, perfect mindfulness, enjoying the sensory.
If you have never done it, don’t worry – it’s not too late to begin. Do it with your child and enjoy it.
Just this simple activity helps with learning about spatial awareness and affords exploration of the sensory and colour, and much more.
Opportunities and activities for drawing, painting, sculpting are myriad and you can either go freestyle or buy ready-packaged arts and craft kits.
The fun of starting from scratch – building your own town / farm / airport etc – then using characters to make your own stories, is immeasurable.
Use a bright, colourful set like LEGO DUPLO Farm Adventures as a standalone farm or as a farm outside of a town you have constructed.
You can set it up on a floor or table, and then the creative play can begin.
Enjoy how it can help with language and planning, as well as the stories that you and your children can weave around the characters.
And, finally, the sense of satisfaction at completing such a venture. Small or large scale is great.
Don’t forget to take pictures of any village you make to put into a collage or photo book – your own portfolio. Taking a photo also allows your child to understand that it can be taken down and another one made.
6. Puppet play
Puppets – either character puppets, random puppets, hand puppets or finger puppets – all generate myriad experiences and provide a safe platform for the acting out of experiences – happy, sad, awkward, hostile or friendly.
Your children can put on a play or just have fun using the puppets however they want.
Puppets are always a great port in a storm. You can get a puppet to whisper a message in your ear to pass to your child that you might not deliver directly to them. It is really difficult to match the versatility of a puppet.
Children’s creative and imaginary play creates the basis for emotional development, empathy and self-regulation, and space for dealing with that feeling we often don’t allow our children to have – boredom.
What seems to be simple creative and imaginary play is really very important, but pressure-free work.
Educational Psychologist Naomi Burgess is a Registered Practitioner with the Health Professions Council and a Chartered Member of the British Psychological Society