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Cultivating Little Learners typography


Kathy Eggers & Lesli Richards
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“Allowing time and space for imaginary play is not frivolous, but places an important tool in our children’s box that will enable them to handle the messiness of life in the healthiest way possible”
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Imaginative play:
Why, How, & Containing the Mess

s I look back on the experience of parenting my five children to adulthood (well, almost there with the last one, anyway) there are a handful of very clear snapshots that stand out to me as clear as if they had happened yesterday. We remember things such as pushing our baby girl in a swing when she was about six months old. The wind was in my face, and she had a pink hat on. We were the only ones at the park. She smiled at me with her eyes, and I remember thinking, “I will never ever be happier than I am in this perfect moment.” I’ve thought about that day many times over the years and other moments like it. I wonder how our brains pick the moments to hold up front and center? I think I remember that day because of the depth of emotions I felt as a new mother sharing a childhood connection with my child for the first time. I deeply bonded with her as I watched her rise and fall in the swing. I was introducing her to a world of playgrounds, bird songs, the wind in her face, and the feeling you get in your stomach when you do something brave and a little dangerous.

black and white photo of a baby sitting on a swing
Another snapshot I treasure in my heart is a day when my children invited me into their world. We had just finished breakfast, and I sent them outside for a quick romp while I cleared dishes and set out their lessons for the day. I can still see the sun coming in my window. It was one of those perfect fall days in the South, when the humidity and heat have finally disappeared and the sky is clear blue, but the leaves haven’t quite turned yet… the very best kind of day. I cleaned up and got distracted folding laundry, then the phone rang. Before I knew it, an hour had passed. I didn’t see the children, so I walked out to the wooded area of our property. All four children seemed to be extremely focused and busy at work, raking pine straw into boundaries of some kind. When they noticed me, they very excitedly told me that they were building a town called Woodville. The boundaries represented their homes and shops. They had made furniture with rocks and stumps. They had created currency out of different types of leaves to buy things from each other. An election was about to take place to decide who would be mayor of Woodville. In an hour, some kind of spark had lit a fire in their imaginations and a whole entire town sprang up from nothing.

I had a choice to make. I could stick with my schedule of phonics and math, or I could let them continue to play. I knew I had walked into something holy, and I’m glad I did the right thing and went back in the house, saving the book work for later in the day. Not only is that day etched in my mind, but for my adult children it is a day they still speak of. It bonded them together as a tribe and that can’t be broken.

black and white photo of brother and sister playing with cardboard swords
There is a tremendous amount of research regarding the importance of imaginary play for children’s health and well-being. When we fall into a deep imaginary play state our brains are busy at work building synapses, especially in the areas that govern self-control and executive function. Interestingly enough, studies have shown that self-control and executive functioning are a more accurate predictor of adult success than IQ tests. In addition, by working out imaginary scenarios in their heads, children develop empathy for others. A new study from McGill University, published in Neuroscience News in December 2023, found that “imagination plays a crucial role in evoking empathy and driving prosocial actions” and that “vividly imagining someone else’s problems increases personal distress, motivating individuals to offer help.” Many studies, including a 2018 study out of the University of Colorado has shown that “imagining a threat lights up similar regions as experiencing it does. It suggests imagination can be a powerful tool in overcoming phobias or post-traumatic stress.” Allowing time and space for imaginary play is not frivolous, but places an important tool in our children’s box that will enable them to handle the messiness of life in the healthiest way possible.

Unfortunately, more and more opportunities for deep imaginary play are being stolen from this generation of children. One has to only look at the history of a popular toy such as Lego to see this. When I was a child, one received a box with neat dividers containing blocks of different shapes and sizes. You could build anything you wanted to from those blocks. Today’s Lego sets come highly specialized to make one specific item. God forbid the baby knock one of those pieces down the heater vent, because then the X-wing fighter or whatever it was is ruined. Interestingly enough, both of my sons loved Lego, but my oldest was only interested in building to the specifications of the instructions and collecting his models on his shelf. My younger son was constantly getting in trouble from his brother for poaching parts from his brother’s models to build creations from his imagination. The possibilities he could see on those shelves drove him bonkers! Most toys these days are like this; they come with a predetermined outcome. When purchasing playthings for your children, try to choose things with open-ended outcomes. Much like buying food with “clean” ingredients, you will find this approach reduces acceptable options on the shelf at a store by a huge amount. We suggest you try this experiment with your children. Get a large, divided hors d’oeuvres tray from a party store. Go outside and gather some rocks, sticks, ferns, flowers, acorns, or whatever else you can find. We love to add a lump of our herbal play dough to the middle of it. Leave it in the middle of your table without any instruction. Your children’s imagination will do amazing things with free stuff from your yard.

You will not regret intentional investment in imaginary play!
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Imaginary Play Ideas:

One of our favorite imaginary play items is a generic playstand. We built the one from these free plans.

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Here are three imaginary play activities that we rotated over the course of the year:
Post office | Flower shop | Pet store

For more detailed plans and ideas, check out our book, The Homegrown Preschooler or our play-based curriculum, A Year of Playing Skillfully. You can also listen to our podcast, Play Skillfully, on all podcast platforms. We sincerely hope you have a great year full of discovery and wonder!
Lesli Richards headshot

esli Richards is the co-author of The Homegrown Preschooler and A Year of Playing Skillfully and co-host of the Playing Skillfully podcast. She has had the pleasure of teaching her five children at home for the past eighteen years. Lesli has been married to Brendan for twenty-six years and lives in beautiful North Georgia. She has always loved children and dreamed of having a large, happy family. Her oldest son has autism and had to be taught to play, which sparked her interest in how children learn. Lesli believes that children learn best through play and exploration and loves researching and presenting her findings to parents in a way that is practical and easy to implement. There is so much to discover about how God has wired kids to learn!

Kathy Eggers headshot

athy Eggers has been in the field of early childhood and homeschooling for over thirty years. She is the mom of ten children, ranging in age from fourteen to thirty-six. Her family has grown to include three grandchildren, with number four on the way. Kathy has taught her children at home since the very beginning, and each year has looked a little different. As a child development specialist, young children have always been her passion. Kathy believes the early years should be full of play and concrete experiences. When given the chance to discover and experience the world first-hand, wonder grows in a child and provides them with a foundation for abstract thinking as they mature. Children who are encouraged to play and figure things out for themselves in the early years are more willing to take risks and problem solve as they become adults. As Mr. Rogers put it, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.”