Preschooler play: why it’s important for imaginative and creative development
Play fosters creativity and imagination in preschoolers, and the preschool years can be one of the most creative times in a child’s life.
Preschoolers use their growing imaginations to:
- build confidence
- express feelings and learn communication skills
- develop, practise and improve coordination and motor skills
- practise decision-making, problem-solving and critical thinking
- explore ideas in a safe environment.
These are important qualities and skills for the preschool years and beyond.
What to expect as preschooler imagination develops
From around 3 years your child might enjoy dramatic play using puppets and dress-ups, tell you very detailed stories about things that never happened, or have an imaginary friend. Your child might also pretend to be a grown-up, a doctor or an astronaut.
Your child will probably want any chance to scribble, draw, paint and paste. At around 4 years, your child can draw detailed pictures of places, things and people from their imagination.
By 5 years, your child is starting to get better at drawing complex shapes – like diamonds, triangles and stars – and can express thoughts and ideas through drawing. Your child might also start to use art to tell stories or describe things that they’ve seen.
It’s worth remembering that children at this age can’t always tell what’s real and what’s made up. This might mean that any scary monsters from stories seem real to your child. If your child has nightmares, reassure your child that they’re safe and explain that the monsters are only make-believe and can’t hurt them.
You’ll see your child expressing their imagination and ideas in all kinds of creative ways. Get some ideas for creative activities to do with your preschooler.
Play ideas and creative activities for preschoolers
Try to step back from your child’s play. This gives your child the chance to decide what and how they want to play. But remember that your child still needs you to encourage and help them if they’re having trouble or they feel overwhelmed.
Here are play ideas to encourage your child’s imagination:
- Tell stories and read books. Your child might enjoy making up new endings for familiar stories. Also try sharing silly rhymes and riddles. Preschoolers especially like word games and enjoy making up their own jokes or rhymes.
- Go for a nature walk or play outside in different kinds of weather. This a simple, low-cost way to let your child experience new and stimulating environments.
- Make time for outdoor play in safe spaces that give your child freedom and time to explore.
- Get your child to help you with simple household chores. Your child could be a waiter who helps to set the table. Or they might like to pretend that they’re a chef and help you with some basic cooking.
- Set up a special play space within your home. Large cardboard boxes or cloths draped over chairs provide endless possibilities for pretend play. Include plenty of toys like blocks or balls, which allow for open-ended play.
- Take the time to rest and dream. Lie on your backs together and look at the clouds and the sky. Imagine what the various shapes could be.
You can also make up simple, low-cost creative activities for your child. For example:
- Give your child crayons or pencils for drawing and scribbling. Your child could make simple maps of your neighbourhood or the way to a friend’s house.
- Make a ‘busy box’ for your child, full of things like icy pole sticks, coloured papers, string, glue and other recyclables like cardboard boxes and plastic bottles. It can also include natural items like twigs, petals, stones or feathers. These are great for craft projects.
- Collect a box of old clothes, shoes, jumpers, boots, handbags and other things for dress-up games.
- Set up a messy play area with sand, clay, playdough, paints, water or mud. You can also take a trip to the beach or river bed to play in the sand and clay.
- Keep old magazines and catalogues. Your child can cut out pictures of people, animals and objects to use them for collage.
- Enjoy puppet play with your child. All you need to get started is a sock or even just a paper bag!
- Listen to music or make musical instruments from everyday objects like empty milk cartons filled with uncooked rice or pebbles, or rubber bands stretched over an opened box. Make music a part of your child’s other activities – for example, singing and drawing at the same time.
Screen time, digital technology use and imaginative play
It’s good to know that screen time and digital technology use can spark your child’s play and imagination.
For example, drawing or painting on a screen can develop your child’s ability to use shape and colour in imaginative ways. Or your child might get new off-screen play ideas from using digital technology – for example, from watching a good-quality TV show like Play School.
Here are a few things you can do to help your child get the most out of screen time and digital technology use:
- Choose good-quality apps, games and other media.
- Share screen time and digital technology with your child.
- Help your child manage screen time and digital technology use.
And remember – healthy screen time and digital technology use is all about balance. It’s good for your child’s development to do plenty of different activities, including pretend and creative play, physical play, social play and reading, as well as digital play.
In general, the key events in development happen in a similar order, but the age they happen might vary for each child. If you’re concerned about any aspect of your child’s development, it’s a good idea to talk with your child and family health nurse or GP or your child’s preschool teacher or early childhood educator.