"Imaginary play is important for all children because it helps them understand their surroundings," says Susan J. Schwartz, MAEd, senior director at the Child Mind Institute's Learning and Diagnostics Center in Manhattan. "It's a way for them to practice. It's a way for them to explore the world."
While jump-starting it may seem daunting, this "practice" also helps create a foundation for other skills, and the consequences of a child's inability to play imaginary games can be detrimental to her development in the future. For example, imaginary play is the basis of later language skills, says Dana Battaglia, outreach clinical coordinator at The Eden II Programs and a visiting professor at Adelphi University in Garden City. Children who do not participate may suffer a lack of flexibility in their language later in life, meaning they could be unable or find it difficult to express themselves. "Practice," says Schwartz, also helps children learn basic social skills.
Many children with special needs, especially those on the autism spectrum, find it difficult to take on the role of someone else. An autistic child might not be able to play "mommy" to a doll because she doesn't have the language to know what the mom would say. For this reason, parents might want to purchase dress-up clothing, kitchen sets, dollhouses, or other similar toys that promote role swapping or playing out different scenarios.
Below are more tips from Battaglia and Schwartz on how to encourage children with special needs to engage in imaginative play:
Start with the right arsenal of toys. Battaglia and Schwartz agree that multisensory toys, or toys that engage more than one of the five senses, are good choices. Toys that light up, make noise, have different textures, are moldable, or move are examples of multisensory toys. Battaglia also suggests using dolls and play sets, such as a farm where the pieces can be used to build imaginary stories about the pigs, cows, and sheep. Schwartz praises blocks as wonderful toys kids can use to represent other objects, like a "car" that the child can "drive" across the floor.
Be a good role model. For better or worse, kids learn from their parents. Battaglia recommends that parents model certain types of imaginary play and try to get their child to follow suit. Build a fort together out of blankets, for instance; when a "guest" knocks at the fort door, demonstrate the type of voice and language you would use in greeting.
Recognize that adults use imaginary play, too. For kids, pretend play develops into more advanced forms of role playing such as playing "house" or "school" with other children. Adults use imaginary play as well when they daydream about certain scenarios (such as their performance at the next board meeting) or rehearse a situation involving other people (like breaking bad news). By keeping in mind that imaginary play is all around, you might be inspired with new ways to help your child.
Know when to seek help. If you feel overwhelmed while trying to effectively engage your child in imaginary play, reach out for help. For children under age 3, parents can seek the advice of a pediatrician or have the county Department of Mental Health conduct an evaluation. School psychologists, teachers, and counselors are available to assist children over the age of 3. Reputable websites can also be helpful in identifying delays in developmental milestones, such as talking, but Schwartz cautions against relying too heavily on Internet advice. "Make sure you aren't comparing your child too much to the milestones," she says. "Though of course development is on a continuum, you don't want to be too far off."
Also see: The Importance of Pretend Play for Children with Autism and Other Special Needs
A Parents' Guide to Special Needs