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Toddler Talk: The Importance of Imagination

John Green, author of The Fault in our Stars, wrote that made-up stories are the “foundational assumption of our species.” Made-up stories matter.

And all it takes is an hour with a toddler to see how true that is—how fundamentally and inherently primal it is for us to play pretend. Imagination allows children to create pretend characters and immerse themselves in a fantasy world, separate from reality—yet, at the same time, imagination ultimately helps children understand reality. It gives them the ability to turn nothing into something, and alter that “something” in an endless number of ways.

Most child development experts insist that pretend play has concrete benefits for developing minds—like problem solving, language skills, reasoning, and cooperation. It teaches self-expression and, maybe most importantly, it lays the foundation for creating goals and dreams for their futures. If they can imagine a certain life, they just may be better equipped to achieve it.

But it’s important to remember that we, as parents, are the keepers of the magic. We read picture books and buy them toys; we engage in pretend role-play and lead by example.

In a world with technological noise and too many structured activities, it’s not enough to assume all young children are natural creative pretenders. Although “play” seems to be as natural as breathing for babies, the distractions start coming as kids gets older.

So it’s up to us, as parents, to encourage their creativity and imagination. What can you do?

  • Bring stuffed animals into pretend play, making silly voices and pretend scenarios.
  • Ask open-ended questions to see where their little minds go.
  • Create a story together—you say a line, then your child adds something, then you add something, etc.
  • Make a fort out of blankets and sheets.
  • Buy a play kitchen with pretend food and utensils—they’re all over garage sales and online sale sites.
  • Create a dress-up section, with old clothes/hats/accessories and children’s costumes.
  • Take a cardboard box and transform it into something—anything. Same goes for any ordinary household item.
  • Make art and crafts accessible, possibly with their own miniature “work station” table and chairs.
  • Play with your children. Play, play, play, play play.
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