“Hi Declan, how are you doing today?” Madison Clay, the Illuminating Child Care mobile classroom early childhood lead teacher, greets the almost three year old as he enters the classroom. He answers “I’m fine,” walks over to the shelf, and grabs the colorful 3D magnetic blocks and an illustration showing different models he can build.

Declan has been participating in Illuminating Child Care for about six weeks, and he will be enrolling in a preschool program in the fall. I had the opportunity to observe him for three hours while he was in drop-in care. 

And today, he’s ready to play. Declan and Madison walk over to the dramatic play area and sit on the rug, and he dumps out the 3D blocks on the carpet. “I want to build this one,” he says, pointing to the rocket ship. “Which piece do we start with first?” Madison asks. Declan picks up the first piece, and Madison and Declan continue to work together until Declan has finished building the rocket ship.  

“Now let’s fly!” Declan starts to turn around the classroom with the rocket.

What is imaginative play?

Though it can be challenging to define what qualifies as play, play is an important way that kids learn. Katie Hurley, LCSW, describes imaginative play as play that “involves advanced thinking strategies, communication, and social skills. Kids spend time planning the play theme, dividing up tasks, negotiating roles, considering perspectives, transferring knowledge from one situation to another (e.g. setting up a grocery store based on what they know from shopping with parents), balancing their own ideas with those of their peers, and developing an action plan. That’s a lot of learning!”

Madison supported Declan in imaginative play by following his lead, asking open-ended questions to build his language, and extending active play opportunities

Imaginative Play Yields Real Benefits

Experts believe imaginative play allows the child to strengthen their creativity and problem-solving abilities, stay active, and make learning fun. When Declan first walked into the classroom, he identified familiar materials in the environment to spark his imagination. During play, he used expressive and descriptive language and engaged his peers in active play. These are just a few developmental benefits of imaginative play. 

“Ah man, it broke! . . . Let’s put it back together . . . This one is yours . . . Did you see that? . . . Where did it go?” Phrases like these were common for Declan to use while playing with and rebuilding the rocket ship with Madison and his peers.  

Imaginative Play in Action

“Now I’m going to build a robot! . . . Look at his arms–he looks like a silly person! . . . Now put wheels on his legs so he can roll and propellers on his head so he can fly!” When Declan plays, he interacts with the teacher and his peers, narrates what he’s doing–and doesn’t forget to celebrate. “Yeah, I made this!” he says triumphantly.

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