Nurture Problem Solving Through Imaginative Play
- Pretend: Encourage your child to pretend. Start with a small action and see where their creativity takes them.
- Learn: Observe your child as they partake in pretend play and learn how they express themselves. Provide props to encourage them in their play.
- Ask: Support their play through questions. Incorporate the five senses where possible by asking them what they see, what they might be hearing.
- Yes, and: Validate their ideas and introduce new ones by asking questions. See where their imagination wanders!
Children’s minds are like sponges, soaking up all the knowledge as they explore the world around them for the first time. Activities like playing, story time, and moving around are fun and exciting for children, but it also helps exercise and develop their brains. Early childhood is a prime time where children’s brains are growing, building the foundation for important cognitive, language and fine motor skills that will follow them into adulthood.
Early childhood is also a good time for children to start building the foundations of their problem-solving skills. It’s easy for kids to get frustrated or want to give up when they don’t know the answer or are unsure of what to do. But by encouraging children to nurture their problem-solving skills from an early age, parents and teachers are giving them the tools to be able to think independently and find creative solutions.
So how does one nurture problem-solving skills? Luckily, this can be done by encouraging activities that children are already naturally drawn to, such as encouraging imaginative play and reading. At the heart of it, problem solving is a creative skill. Therefore, by encouraging children to exercise their imagination and creativity, you are inadvertently helping them become better critical thinkers and are helping set them up for success.
Problem Solving Through Imaginative Play
Imaginative play is effective at fostering problem-solving skills. Problem solving is rarely a linear way of thinking and approaching a problem with a creative mindset allows you to step back and observe the issue from all angles, determining the best approach based on all the factors. It requires creativity and flexibility of mind. Imaginative play helps children develop creativity and problem-solving skills by encouraging children’s minds to wander through unstructured play.
During imaginative play, or pretend play, children might role-play, act out experiences, or mimic the behavior of someone they know such as a parent, friend, hero, or teacher. By ‘pretending’ to be someone else during imaginative play, children learn empathy as they are literally imagining themselves as someone else. Imaginative play also helps children increase their vocabulary and develop critical communication skills as an early age.
When engaging in pretend play, there are plenty of problems to solve, and your child will need to pause and reflect on how to approach or navigate them. It’s important to give them space when they are playing so they can build their critical thinking skills and figure out on their own how to navigate whatever problem they are facing. Just like any other skill, imagination is like a muscle. The more it’s used and practiced, the easier it becomes to "think outside the box."
Here are some ways to promote imaginative play with your children:
- Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions: When your child is taking part in imaginative play, ask questions about what is happening, without offering any answers. Give space for your child’s imagination to kick in and explain what is going on, who is who, and where the story in their head is going.
- Lead by example: When your child in engaging in imaginative play, join in on the fun and play with them. By providing a safe environment for your child to express themselves, they’ll feel more comfortable in exercising their creativity without boundaries.
- Provide props and toys: For a child, a meager stick can become a sword, and a regular cardboard box can transform into a rocket ship. By providing props and toys for your child to play with, you’ll be setting the stage for their next adventure. And they don’t have to be expensive, either! See what shapes, colors, and items your child responds to, and follow their lead in providing items that spark their imagination.
- When reading, ask leading questions: Promote imaginative thinking by involving your child in the story you’re reading. Ask them how they think the character is feeling, what they think is going to happen next, or how they would have acted if they were in the story.
In my newest illustrated children’s book, The Imagination Machine, the main characters use their creative skills to solve a big problem. In the story, Sam believes he has lost his imagination. His friend Ophelia offers to help him find it by travePling in her imagination machine! Her imagination machine can take them anywhere, all they need to do is draw where it is they want to go, and the imagination machine will bring them there. Of course, the imagination machine is just a cardboard box, but it becomes a vehicle for Sam to realize he had his imagination all along, he just needed to practice.
As a companion to The Imagination Machine, we made free Play Guides available based on the different worlds that Sam and Ophelia visit. These guides are meant to help children think creatively through play.
At the end of the day, imagination really is like any other muscle, and it’s important that imaginative play be part of a child’s development, just like reading and exercise.