Why Creative Play Matters

There’s a whole lot of important development going on when your child engages in the world of make-believe. Here’s what it all means and why it’s a big deal.

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Dramatic overcoat, eye patch, skull-and-crossbones hat, leather boots. This is your child on a random Tuesday afternoon, exploring the possibilities of pirate-hood — a make-believe world with ships to be captained, treasures to be found, and fairies to befriend. It may seem simple and, to an adult, a little silly. But what’s going on in your child’s mind as he swashes and swaggers his way around the living room is actually pretty complex.

Creative play, the term for taking familiar items like dad’s white dress shirt and transforming it into a pirate’s tunic, is an important component of children’s development. Role-playing is part of creative play, as is conceiving a fantasy world with make-believe friends who go on imaginary adventures to magical places. Research is plentiful on the benefits: Studies suggest that kids who engage in creative play when they are young grow up to be better problem-solvers in their careers and better out-of-the-box thinkers in relationships.

Ironically, today’s world provides fewer and fewer opportunities for kids to flex their imagination muscle. Jammed schedules full of extracurriculars leave little time for the daydreaming required in creative play, but its contributions to your child’s growth are too important to overlook. Here are three big reasons why creative play matters.

Creative Play and Empathy

You’re midway through the stack of reports you need to compile for tomorrow’s office meeting, when suddenly a head pops through the study doorway.

“Daddy, Captain Hook is really mad,” your daughter says boldly.

“Why’s that?”

“Peter Pan stole his sword again,” your daughter tells you. “I think he is really angry this time.”

This is significant. Right here and now, through creative play, your daughter is letting you know she’s mastering the important developmental milestone known as the theory of mind: the ability to consider a situation from someone else’s perspective. This is a challenge for kids (and not a few adults), who tend to see the world through their own lens. Whether it’s a pirate losing their temper after someone steals their prized sword or Elsa feeling sad that she’s stuck in her ice castle, when kids experiment with thinking like someone else, it helps them realize every person sees the world a little differently.

This is a crucial step towards your child developing a sense of empathy. Empathy is what makes us hurt inside when a friend is sad or feel joy when someone we love is happy. Understanding someone else’s emotions and experiencing them as your own is an essential part of all relationships — personal and professional. Creative play provides a shortcut to this particular learning since kids naturally imagine how the characters they are creating might feel about certain adventures. In fact, psychologists at Case Western Reserve University found that not only did make-believe play help children better understand the connection between their own actions and subsequent feelings, it also helped them see the effect on other people’s feelings as well.

Creative Play and Problem-Solving

Picture this scene: It’s your 6-year-old’s first sleepover, and he and his buddy are sprawled out in the den, surrounded by markers, stickers, tapes, and a couple of old cardboard boxes. They are about 20 minutes deep into their plan to transform the boxes into wearable characters from their favorite movie, Cars, when they hit a stumbling block: How are they going to fit themselves through the box? There are no arm holes! Where will they put their heads?! The future Lightning McQueen turns to you with a desperate look. “Dad, help!”

As you join your child and his friend to consider the construction of Lightning McQueen, it’s a great opportunity to strengthen basic math and spatial-reasoning skills. Where on the box should you cut holes for body parts? How big should you make the circle for your son’s head? Fundamental skills of reading, math, and a little science (your daughter wants to color the blocks blue-green like the water in The Little Mermaid: How should she mix the paints?) frequently enter into the creative play picture, helping your youngster see that academic learning and creativity go hand in hand.

Beyond the specifics of the task at hand, the beauty of creative play is that it both stimulates the mind and encourages kids to think (pardon the pun) outside the box. Research in the journal Child Development shows that creative play teaches kids to come up with multiple ways to use everyday objects, fostering innovation and also strengthening their belief that if the first approach to a challenge doesn’t work, they can try again from another angle.

Creative Play and Bonding

Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, razor in hand, you catch a glimpse of your son lurking in the background. He looks baffled. What the heck are you doing with a face covered in foam? From a child’s perspective, adult behavior can be, well, mysterious. Where is this “work” thing that you go to all day? How can you possibly drink bitter coffee every day? These and other curiosities of the grown-up world can be answered through an imaginary play session where your child pretends to be…you.

This is completely normal. In fact, pretending they are someone they know is a common theme in kids’ play. It’s a great way for siblings, friends, or parent and child to bond, as you assume each other’s roles in a semi-fictitious world based on shared real-life experiences.

Kids also bond over creating a storyline together. These sessions unfold like a choose-your-own-ending book: How long will Belle be trapped in the castle for? Who will save her? Will she save herself? Inventing a plot with others develops your child’s ability to work in groups, negotiate, compromise, communicate, and resolve conflicts, according to research in the journal Pediatrics. Of course, not every play session goes smoothly, and from time to time, you may be called upon to play peacemaker. But in the end, your child learns that the best stories — like the best friendships — are the ones you make together.