“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
― Albert Einstein

At Treehouse Children’s Museum we think developing imaginations is vital. Treehouse offers lots of opportunities for children, ages 1 to 12, to immerse themselves in imaginative play. It’s easiest (and perhaps more socially acceptable) for preschool children to create and spend time in pretend worlds where they decide the rules and write the scripts for what the characters they dream up what to say and do. However, older children need this kind of play, too, since it exercises the brain in ways that modern inventions like television, video games, and the Internet can’t. Parents often think that children who are 8 or 9 years old are too old for pretend play and that computer games are a good substitute. While these games did take a lot of imagination to develop, they are not a substitute for pretend play. The creative work was done by a game designer, not the child playing the game.

Children gain a lot from imaginative play, whether creating or just participating, especially play scenarios that involve others. Children learn to invent and tell their own stories, boosting their language skills as they narrate the action and describe the roles for their world. Children who participate in imaginative play tend to have a better grasp of grammar, as they imitate the way adults talk. Children who participate in imaginative play can learn empathy and certainly learn cooperation. Outgoing kids learn about boundaries of interaction and shy kids practice social skills. Imaginative play teaches self control because of the boundaries imposed by the rules of the game. Children learn to control their impulses during pretend play and use what’s called “executive function” as they wait for their turn and try to respond within the structure of the play. Roleplaying games can help children be problem solvers as they find solutions to the dilemmas they create. Their solutions may not always be logical, but the process of thinking about and choosing solutions is what’s important. Every parent and teacher knows that children can learn difficult material through pretend play: think grocery store play and addition and subtraction.

All these benefits are great reasons to encourage children to engage in imaginative play. But the benefits are even greater when adults and older youth participate and model how to be empathetic, how to explore solutions, and how to give a story a twist. It’s a bit of a trick for adults to refrain from controlling the make-believe, but adults can support the play by letting their child assign them a role, asking questions as that character, and responding to the scenarios and solutions the child creates. Another bonus: imaginative play is a great way to bond with laughter and shared experiences.

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