I grew up with seven boys—three of them were my brothers, two of them my step brothers, and the other two were my next door neighbors. We were all around the same age—the greatest age difference between the oldest and the youngest was six years—so we spent a lot of time outside playing games together. One of our favorite games to play was called “Be Whoever You Wanna Be,” which was just a really long name for playing pretend. Sometimes we would pretend to be characters from our favorite show or sometimes we would pretend to be warriors from a made-up race. The possibilities—and the hours we spent playing these various types of pretend games—seemed endless.
These days, it seems like kids don’t spend as much time playing anymore… or rather, kids don’t spend as much time playing pretend. Instead, kids are more preoccupied watching videos online, playing video games, and being indoors. According to the Common Sense Media, “a nonprofit focused on helping children, parents and educators navigate the world of media and technology,” teens spend nine hours a day using some form of media. Tweens, “identified as children 8 to 12, spend about six hours, on average, consuming media.” In a world where teens and tweens spend hours consuming media, not much time is left over for them to use their imagination.
It’s important to allow time for kids to exercise their mind and use their imagination without constantly being stimulated. Bright Horizons reports that “imagination fosters cognitive and social development” and that “imagining, trying new ways of doing things, and experimenting help develop critical thinking in children.” When kids are allowed time to play pretend and use their imagination, their creative skills sharpen and their ability to solve problems strengthens. When a kid plays pretend, they invent scenarios in which they can be a doctor or a firefighter or a farmer. They learn to come up with solutions themselves as issues arise in their roles during play. This especially becomes important when they are playing pretend with others.
Imagination plays a huge part in child development when kids are able to play pretend with their peers. Kids gain social-emotional skills when they play pretend with other kids because “the experience of ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’…. helps teach the important moral development skill of empathy.” While it’s known that kids have a “egocentric point of view,” it’s through “maturation and cooperative play [that] your child will begin to understand the feelings of others” (Scholastic). Through pretend play, kids will be able to learn how to get along with others and gain good empathy skills at the same time.
The value in imaginative play relies heavily on the kids having no constraints. It’s typical for parents to want to monitor their kids and keep them constantly under foot, but the greatest benefits from play come when the kids are free to play however they want. Megan Rosker, a mother of three (ages 6, 3 and 2), has found that “a big part of free play is having space to do it in, a space that isn’t ruled over by adults.” Additionally, Rosker says that “the other key is not to instruct kids how to play with something. I can’t tell you how many board-game pieces have been turned into something else. But I let them do it because I figure their imagination is more valuable than the price of a board game.” It’s not enough to let kids play but to allow them the opportunity to play freely and as creatively as they desire. That is how kids can have the most fun while they play.
I am grateful for the abundance of time I was given to play freely and creatively with my friends growing up. It was during those "Be Whoever You Wanna Be" games that I learned how to resolve conflicts with my brothers as well as discovered my appreciation for my imagination. When I wasn't playing with my friends, my imagination manifested itself in writing stories that eventually led me to discovering a love for writing. This in turn led to a degree in English, and a career that allows me to write creatively as part of my workday. By using their imagination, children can grow into well-rounded adults and it can even help them discover where their true passion lies.