Something very important seems to be disappearing from playgrounds across the land — the age-old tradition of fantasy play. Not just physical play (as in swinging, sliding and running around like a maniac), but the kind where a child’s mind is fully active, like sneakily learning coding basics through a mobile game. It’s easy for parents to be distracted by more immediate goals, like raising an adventurous, non-picky eater or teaching your kid to be digitally savvy, so worrying about fantasy play can seem like a low priority. But it’s a big deal, especially when you’re someone who’s trying to encourage your child to be a creative thinker (what parent isn’t?). And we’re not the only ones who think this is crucial for our kids.

young boy creative play in backyard

The Study

Every now and then a researcher who believes in the importance of play gets the data and the science together to back the idea up. An alert for all us parent-types came across the pond from Dr. Louise Bunce of Oxford Brookes University in the UK, who recently presented findings that will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Dr. Bunce engaged with 70 youngsters from the ages of four to eight to see how they used fantasy play and whether it had an effect on their creative thinking. In the study, the kiddos were first interviewed to see how much their play fell into three categories of pretending: mirroring real life, involving events that are improbable in reality and involving impossible events. Then they were asked to perform a series of creative tasks, such as showing different ways to move across a room.

But does all this pretending while playing have an impact on their creativity? Dr. Bunce’s theory is that make-believe play requires kids to stretch their brains to imagine the world as something other than what it is, which is also essential in creative thinking. The study’s results seem to back this up — the kids who engage in more fantastical play have better results on the creativity portion of the study.

There’s a bit of a conundrum; the researchers don’t know if fantasy play leads to more creative thinking or if a child who is already a creative thinker naturally engages in more fantasy play. It’s a total chicken-and-egg scenario. “Nonetheless,” says Dr. Bunce, “these results provide encouraging evidence for parents and teachers who could consider encouraging children to engage in fantasy play as one way to develop their creative-thinking skills.” This idea of giving children the freedom to play in weird and wonderful ways is so key to developing and fostering ingenuity.

African American boy playing in cardboard box

Play Is Being Lost

In our homework- and extra-curricular-crazed culture, our kids don’t get enough freedom to delve into their worlds of make-believe. Many kids, it seems, are rushing through that stage and pushed far too quickly into a reality-based existence. While reality may be where our little ones live physically, they should be encouraged to keep their heads in the clouds as much as they can for as long as they can.

How Do You Encourage This Kind of Play?

It’s easy. Carve out some time for pretend play as if it’s a piano lesson or soccer practice. Try to steer the wee ones away from a TV show they passively watch or a video game that doesn’t involve imaginative play and encourage them to use their minds instead. While this might be met at first with groans and resistance, they’ll soon forget about that as they start to create their own pretend worlds. If your child needs a bit of inspiration, give them a variety of cues. You’re a talking frog: What would you say? You live under the sea: What would you do? You can fly: Where would you go? Engage their originality in various ways from role-playing to drawing to singing a ditty based on the fantasy they’re engaged in.

In a world where kids are growing up too fast and a time when schools aren’t embracing creativity as much as they should, it’s up to us to get the next generation playing and thinking in unique and magical ways. And while you’re at it, you should play too: We’re never too old to have fun and become more creative.

Do you make sure your kids take time to engage in creative play? Tell us @BritandCo!

(Photos via Getty)