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Just Imagine! Why Children Need Time for Imaginative Play

Just Imagine! Why Children Need Time for Imaginative Play

Child’s play - exploring thoughts and ideas without being constrained by the limits of the physical world. It’s what our children need as much time and space for as we can possibly give them right now.

It’s been a tough year for us all, of that there is no doubt. And our children especially have suffered - spending most of the year stuck at home, deprived from seeing friends, and with limited opportunities to learn and to play outdoors. They’ve had to give up so much.

2 children, one boy and one girl wearing blue school jumpers balancing on a climbing frame that has been installed onto artificial grass whilst 5 children play in a climb through tunnel behind the climbing frame.

So as we begin to ease back into normality, however that may look, it is absolutely essential that we give them their time to play, to get outdoors with their friends, and to use their wonderful imaginations with no rules or expectations holding them back. Because after all this, a child’s ability to play imaginatively might just be the most powerful tool they have to allow them to get on with living their lives to the full…

5 children playing on get set, go! blocks that have been placed onto artificial grass in the middle of a roadway whilst one boy wearing a red top with black sleeves stands on the roadway watching the children.

Why Imaginative Play is so Important

Never underestimate the power of pretend play! It might look like simple fun, but there’s actually hugely important business going on with every box-turned-boat, every climbing frame-turned-castle, every blanket-turned-cape, every shark-infested water table and every single sandpit that holds a dozen different secret pirate treasures just waiting to be found!

2 children, one boy wearing a blue long-sleeved top and one girl wearing a grey dress and blue top, playing with the sand in a sandbox that has been installed in front of green fencing.

Imaginary play is vital to childhood development. It’s how children develop the essential psychological and emotional capacities that help them to understand the world in which they live, and how they fit into it - how to solve problems and be creative in their approach. And it has a huge impact on their ability to develop the key skills that allow them to express themselves successfully, interact with peers and build good relationships.

Not just for toddlers - the need for continuing opportunities for imaginative play as children progress through primary school is just as important as it is in the Early Years.

3 children, one wearing a multi-coloured raincoat are playing on a climbing frame that has been installed onto blue wetpour surfacing in front of the school building.

Going outdoors to explore and fulfill their own ideas for play allows primary-age children to openly anticipate their freedom and independence. It helps them to become resourceful, with the space to discover themselves and their surroundings. 

It’s here in the fresh air that they make memories, and here that they can really be active in their play, boosting their physical health and mental wellbeing. So it’s vital that primary school children are afforded the time, space and encouragement to get outdoors and play creatively every day.

2 children dressed in blue fireman fancy dress costumes and wearing yellow hats holding a long yellow tube as a hosepipe, stood next to 4 den making posts.

7 Big Benefits of Imaginative Outdoor Play


1. Improving mental health and wellbeing

The effects of the global pandemic on our children are ongoing, and it’s not just about the academics of school closures - most importantly it’s about their health and wellbeing. 

The “horrific” impact of the last national lockdown has been raised in a new survey commissioned by the Schools Active Movement. It’s the largest analysis of how the winter lockdown impacted young people, and it shows an alarming drop in pupil resilience, activity levels, social interaction and fundamental movement skills.Anxiety levels are soaring, with one in six 5 to 16 year olds reporting a probable mental health disorder last year.

3 girls sat underneath a den they created using a sheet and 5 den making posts that has been installed onto the artificial grass. With a big blue bucket at the side of the den.

Enjoying outdoor activities, playing with friends in the fresh air and well away from those screens, is very well known for its power to boost the mood.

Getting out there and making up imaginary games offers escapism - it’s about children having good fun, claiming back and nurturing that sense of adventure, letting go of their worries for a while and being allowed to just enjoy themselves. You can’t beat it!

5 children playing at a mud kitchen whilst 2 boys play with a rope and pully which has been installed onto the artificial grass in front of bow timber fencing.

2. Promoting physical development

The same survey commissioned by the Schools Active Movement found that 84% of schools surveyed have identified a decline in children’s physical fitness, and two thirds thought that pupils had gained excessive weight over lockdown.

9 children playing on a large climbing frame which has been installed onto artificial grass, all the children are stood waving towards the camera, wearing blue school jumpers.

Imaginative play usually involves moving the whole body. Running away from wild tigers, chasing after bank robbers, jumping through the air with superhero powers, leaping like ninjas across the playground, crawling into a secret den, climbing the highest mountain, working hard on a building site, digging for buried treasure, making and serving mud pies or building a giant’s castle in the sky - you name it, they all involve a whole host of body movements.

And so through imaginative play children can improve their fitness, build their strength and stability, and develop their motor skills.

4 girls, 3 with blonde hair and one with brown hair playing in the mud box and mud kitchen wearing red waterproof jackets and wellington boots.

3. Developing speech and language

Imaginative play has a major role in early childhood language development.

More often than not, this type of play involves children pretending to be something or someone completely different from who they are. This requires plenty of communication as they mimic and explore roles, and they often love to narrate what’s happening, so they’re naturally enhancing their vocabulary and language skills.

2 girls stood on a performance stage wearing a pink princess dress and a purple princess dress whilst one girl sits on the stage and two girls sit on artificial grass topped seats in the audience ready to watch the show.

They’ll be choosing new and different words to communicate with each other, perhaps something they’ve heard at home, in a book or on television - it’s all fuel for the imagination and it can be surprisingly entertaining!

Unstructured, imaginative play allows them to create their own version of events, set their own scene, and imagine how the different players will look, behave and interact. 

4 children playing on top of a climb through tunnel that has been topped with artificial grass that has been installed in front of the school building whilst one child sits inside of the tunnel.

By providing a supportive, high-quality play environment, joining in with play where appropriate, we can help them to feed off what they have, discover the language they need to communicate, and learn how to use it to express themselves clearly.

3 girls stood on a performance stage that has been installed in between two large trees, girls are reading a script from pieces of paper whilst 2 more children sit on the benches in the audience watching the show.

4. Supporting social and emotional development

Learning social skills can present its challenges - taking turns, sharing and working together isn’t always a favourable option when it’s a brand new concept for you!

But children do have a natural way of relating when they play, and this develops as they learn to connect with each other in different ways, and they begin to understand relationships.

Imaginative plays allows children to explore the world and the people around them, and their own feelings about it all at the same time. It’s a healthy process that, over time, helps them to recognise their own emotional responses and reactions to things, and to develop empathy.

3 children stood inside of a wigwam smiling towards the camera whilst 4 children talking stood outside of the wigwams in front of a tree with pink leaves.

When they’re acting out imaginary scenarios, they might be thinking of real situations that are impacting their own lives - through play they have a ‘safe’ opportunity to explore, manipulate and change these situations to work through and become comfortable with their own feelings.  

They’ll learn how to ask for help, and how to include others and make new friends along the way.

Lots of children wearing blue school jumpers playing inside a bespoke treehouse that has been built around a very large tree with a big green slide attached to the treehouse.

In a study on “Pretend and Physical Play” in 2013, psychologists Eric Lindsay and Malinda Colwell observed that children who engage in imaginative play express more emotional engagement, thoughtfulness and understanding, and less negative emotional expression such as selfishness and anger, and score higher on tests of emotional regulation and understanding.

two girls stood inside of a giant playhouse with a chalkboard, one girl wearing a red summer dress, hi-vis jacket and yellow builders hat holding a small clipboard whilst one girl wearing a red cardigan behind a box of blocks.

5. Fueling creativity

Children create all sorts of stories around the characters they become, and can turn any object they’re presented with into something else entirely. Using imagination in play helps foster creativity - a hugely important life skill that will equip and enable children to tackle the challenges they face through life head-on.

one girl sat on a storytelling chair sticking her tongue out, in front of a white brick wall with artificial grass topped seats in front of the storytelling chair that have 9 dinosaurs sat on top.

Being creative can be a great stress-buster too! Child psychologist Sally Goddard Blythe, director of The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology and author of The Genius of Natural Childhood: Secrets of Thriving Children, explains how the importance of imagination in all areas of child development cannot be overstated - “This kind of play allows children to tap into their creativity and really run with it, without any boundaries, in a way that’s very freeing.

5 children playing inside of a pirate ship that has been installed onto blue splash wetpour surfacing whilst one teacher wearing a blue jacket and a pirate's hat stands at the front of the ship speaking to the children.

6. Developing problem-solving skills

From creativity comes excellent problem-solving skills. Children need time and space to figure things out for themselves, and if they can use their imaginations in this way - with the freedom to create their own visual images in their mind’s eye in order to explore ideas, without physical restrictions - then they can begin to see new possibilities and put them to the test.

3 children playing on a small climbing frame that has been installed onto the artificial grass, one child wearing red wellington boots and one child wearing pink croc shoes.

When children play together, they’re learning to cooperate, to negotiate and to sort out disagreements for themselves. Acting out scenarios and solving issues that arise, whether real or part of their imaginary game, it’s all part of learning how to problem-solve. They’re becoming critical thinkers, and that will serve them well through life.

2 boys wearing blue school jumpers playing on a climbing wall that has been installed onto wetpour surfacing in front of blue fencing, with green crates placed on the floor next to the climbing wall.

7. Encouraging Independence

Making their own rules - from a child’s point of view that’s a huge bonus for imaginative play! This is their time to try out their own ideas, create their own stories, explore for themselves and not just have to do what the adults tell them to do!

1 boy wearing a blue coat and black trousers stepping off a wobbly bridge onto stepping stones which have been installed onto artificial grass with a wig wam and climbing wall installed behind the bridge.

As they connect with the world around them, children will naturally incorporate some of the things they have learned into their creative play. This gives them the freedom and the encouragement, all within a safe space, to try out taking risks and following through on their own decisions. And from this they have the tools required to develop confidence in themselves, and become the amazing, independent and resilient individual that’s waiting right there inside them.

3 children sat on artificial grass topped seats, one wearing a red dinosaur costume, one wearing a policeman costume and one wearing a green and yellow waterproof bodysuit.

Good news!

Fuelling children’s imaginations has never been easier - with a few good props, and the time and space to do it - follow their lead and offer prompts only if needed - give them the opportunities and they’ll be ready to fly.

We’re here to help you get children who have been stuck at home back into loving their imaginative play, and provide the inspiration for it.

We supply schools and nurseries across the UK with a wide range of Outdoor Learning Products to inspire young imaginations. From small but significant changes to full playground redesigns, we can help you to enhance their learning and provide the very best outdoor learning facilities for your pupils. Please Contact Us for a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our expert playground consultants.

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