Encouraging your toddler’s imagination: Beyond pretend play

Imagination is such a staple of childhood that it’s easy to forget that it’s not something children are necessarily born able to use. As they grow to better understand the world around them, they come to be better able to engage in figurative thinking. Using language, for example, is some of the first figurative thinking young children engage in. The word “cat” isn’t actually your little one’s favorite furry friend, and the word “cookie” isn’t actually the snack they want, but these words are used as the stand-ins for the important things in their life – and using the right words can help them get that cuddly cat or that yummy cookie – and so they will start to associate these sounds with the real-life things they care about.

From there, your little one’s language skills really start to blossom – which you’ve almost certainly noticed – and their figurative thinking skills do too! Figurative thinking, and imagination, can help develop young children’s social skills – they need imagination to start to think about how their actions might make others feel, after all. Imagination also improves problem-solving skills, gives children ways to amuse themselves, which can in turn help to improve their attention spans, and may encourage an interest in reading, art, or science at an early age.

Playing pretend is one of the main ways that young children exercise and expand their imaginations, but it’s definitely not the only way. Beyond pretend play, you can encourage your kiddo’s imagination in any number of little ways every day.

  • Socially: By giving Baby plenty of chances for free-play with other children, you’re giving them the chance to be inspired by the way other children think – and the turns their imaginations take. Mixed-age groups, in particular, can be great for this, since children at different ages see the world in different ways and can inspire each other to engage in different types of play than they might on their own.
  • Through stories: As young children’s figurative thinking skills expand, they’re able to enjoy fictional stories more than they might have at earlier ages. Stories can help your little one start to think about how others might think and feel, and they can provide lots of inspiration for imaginative play.
  • In conversation: Talking to Baby early, often, and enthusiastically teaches them that their thoughts and feelings are valuable and that you’re interested in hearing them. Asking them lots of questions and then giving them the time and space to think them through is a great way to encourage creative thinking.

As Baby grows, you’ll notice that their thoughts may move in unexpected directions, and this is a great sign of their emotional growth and cognitive development. With your encouragement, their imagination could become one of their greatest strengths.

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