Bigger Kids

How to encourage creative play

Not all play is equal, experts say. Here are five "open-ended" ways to encourage kids to engage in creative, imaginative playtime

By Teresa Pitman
How to encourage creative play

“Play is vital for development. Play is a biological necessity,” says Carol Reid, a former professor and namesake of the Carol Reid Early Childhood Education Resource Centre.

You’ve probably noticed that preschoolers love to play. Not all play is equal, though, according to Terry Stafford, the director of the Wildwood Educational Enrichment Centre in Fort Langley, BC. Stafford says the more passive activities of watching TV or interacting with electronic games can be seductive and may pull kids away from creative, imaginative play. “That’s why your supply of creative materials needs to be easy to access and equally appealing.”

The word Reid used to describe the toys and activities that promote creativity is “open-ended," adding that these “open-ended toys can be enjoyed by boys and by girls, appeal to a wide age range, and don’t need adult instructions or demonstrations.” According to Reid, children also need enough space to be able to move around freely with a good stretch of unstructured time—suggesting at least 45 minutes—to really get into their creative play.

Want to encourage your preschooler to explore some new creative activities? Stafford suggests setting up areas that can promote different types of play:


The art corner

  • Stock up on inexpensive art supplies: crayons, markers, different types of paints, coloured pencils and chalks. (Keep paints and especially messy art supplies out of reach until you’re available to supervise.)
  • If you can, set up a permanent painting centre. Tape a shower curtain to the floor with duct tape, and put a child-sized table and chairs on top. Keep a small pail with a wet rag handy for easy cleanup, and have old adult T-shirts hanging nearby to protect clothes.
  • A box of collage supplies and glue can invite more creative expression. Try these materials: wallpaper samples, feathers, beads, crinkled paper, pictures cut from magazines, and corrugated and textured papers.
  • Store containers of playdough, clay and modelling wax near the table.
  • Make a place to display the finished artwork. “A clothesline along one wall with clothespins for attaching pictures is a fun look,” says Stafford.

The drama corner

  • A dress-up trunk is essential. Stafford recommends including gowns, adult T-shirts, hats, neckties, vests, gloves, old costumes, plus plenty of bling — necklaces, bangles, crowns and hair ornaments. Towels and blankets can also be used in various ways (superhero cape, for example). Rummage through second-hand stores for supplies.
  • Props also help with dramatic play. You can have a play kitchen with pretend food and plastic dishes, battle scenes with toy swords for knights or pirates, a doctor’s office with stethoscopes and bandages, or a pup tent with sleeping bags and flashlights for kids who want to play “camping.”
  • A large mirror on the wall allows children to admire themselves as they perform.
  • Use a tablet or phone to film the performance and and share to family and friends. Or, make a virtual event of it so an audience can watch live!
  • Use a large cardboard box to make a puppet theatre. Just cut a big square hole in the top half of the front, and a smaller one in the back where the junior puppeteers can enter. Hang a curtain inside the stage to hide the young performers. Make puppets out of socks or let them use dolls and stuffed animals to act out the stories. (Do not expect much in the way of plots!)

The music corner

  • Build a collection of simple instruments (tambourines, drums, xylophones, etc.) to encourage children to explore music. If you play an instrument, encourage them to play along with you in a freewheeling improv session.
  • Play a variety of music, including classical, jazz, blues and music from around the world.

The building corner

  • “You can’t do better than a good supply of basic wooden blocks,” says Stafford. If you have basic woodworking skills, you may be able to cut up scrap wood, sand the pieces smooth, and make your own block collection.
  • Building toys such as LEGO® can also inspire creative building. Try to avoid the “build it this way” kits and scout sales for open-ended collections of LEGO® instead.
  • Collect the cardboard tubes from toilet paper rolls and paper towels, Styrofoam packing materials, cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes, and other items that might otherwise be thrown out to add to your child’s building materials.

A book nook

  • Keep a collection of interesting books handy — check your local library for discarded books for sale.
  • Help your child gather props and act out the story.
  • Encourage your child to paint a picture of what happened in the story.
  • Ask your child to tell you a story next. If you’re feeling ambitious, help your child make his own book. What we say to our children about play is as important as the environment. “Let your child take the lead,” says Reid. “When adults tell children how to play — it’s not play.”
This article was originally published on Oct 30, 2020

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