Imaginative Play: Lou Harvey-Zahra shares ideas for what she believes is the best way to play

Imaginative Play: Lou Harvey-Zahra shares ideas for what she believes is the best way to play

The greatest wonder of childhood is imaginative play. However hard we try, true imaginative play after childhood is lost forever. Our logical mind tells us that the wooden block is not a bar of soap, or the shells are not golden coins. Imaginative play lays the foundation for creative thinking (understanding and creating solutions in later life, a form of higher intelligence). 

Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more Important than knowledge.” Knowledge has a limit, but imagination is endless… Toys that develop good imaginary play skills in young children often mimic the ‘real’ world. Great toys do not come from shops, but are often repurposed household equipment and objects from nature.

A play kitchen

Buy or find second-hand a wooden dresser and a cooker. (You could also make a cooker from a bedside table, adding cork for the heating elements.) Assemble old little saucepans and cooking equipment. Items from nature can be transformed with a little imagination: feathers into candles on the cake, shells into money to pay the bill, wool into pasta! Little hands love a miniature tea set to pour tea for teddy. Espresso cups make great pretend cups to use along with an old metal teapot. The café can be a little table and chairs, with old cloths and spoons to set the table. An empty carton with large conkers or little pine kernels becomes the eggs – great for a cooked breakfast! Newspaper is ideal for wrapping the pretend shell-and-cardboard fish and chips. Don’t forget the apron, or the pad and pencil for taking orders.

This play kitchen can provide hours of imaginative fun for a young child. Create a ‘little home’ where young children can play the hours away. Place this play kitchen near to your own kitchen or living area. Children love to play near an adult.

Imaginative play toys

Other toys that create imaginary play skills in your home:

  • Old bags to carry around, purses, a pretend cash register, old phones and unplugged computer keyboards – these last two items have been played with most in my home – recycled pads of paper and old tickets (ideal for playing offices, shops, trains, and limitless for imitating the real world).
  • Dress-up clothes of every kind: old shoes, hats, sunglasses, waistcoats and dresses, firefighter and police hats and jackets.
  • Dolls (big and small) and dolls’ clothes, toy beds, high-chairs, prams and blankets: these items can often be found in charity shops. Nappies can be old cut-up towels. Children have played with dolls for thousands of years; it deeply nurtures the child and develops skills of nurturing and caring for others. Encourage both girls and boys to do this.
  • A doctor’s kit: old bandages, empty pots of cream, a stethoscope, and a wooden peg for the injection. (Poor teddy has hurt his arm… Again, the skill of caring is developed.)
  • A toy farm and animals – these whisper to the child of the natural world. Wooden blocks can make great fences and barns.
  • Old tools and a pretend toolbox; old paintbrushes and a pot of water. (In hot weather young children will paint the house and garden furniture!)
  • An upturned table to turn into a boat, train or car. The laundry basket can make a great steam-train funnel.
  • A big bedspread to throw over a table to make a cubby.
  • And, of course, the good old cardboard box!

Recycled play

A cardboard box may be played with for longer than the expensive gift it contained. With a little creativity it can be changed into a boat, a bed, a doll’s house, a car. Real-life old objects often hold more interest than purpose-made toys. Abandoned and broken plastic toys amount to landfill of scary proportions. Repurposed play toys are good for your child’s imagination and the planet’s health.

Work is child’s play

Always remember that an adult’s work is child’s play. Involving your toddler with everyday chores creates contented young children connected to the adults around them. Also think of the life skills they are developing! Place a little broom next to your large one for sweeping fun; pants and socks can be taken in a child’s laundry basket to the washing line (or even to their own little play line); a small shopping bag is required for little hands to carry a piece of fruit from the shop. A plant spray bottle is handy for a child to help water the houseplants, and spray to clean the bathroom!

An apron for helping in the kitchen is an essential item; young children love to chop and stir soft foods for a meal. A cooking activity each week can bring joy to your toddler’s life. Washing up is definitely not boring: fill the sink for bubbles and washing-up fun – plastic cups are ideal. If your young child is at a loose end at home, fill the sink for a washing-up party! (OK, you may need to mop the floor afterwards!) Or ask your child to help you with another household task.

Daily chores will not bring a smile to the faces of teenagers, but they can create a toddler grin!

Everyday outings

To add to imaginative play skills, enrich a young child’s life with local outings: the bakery, post office, railway station, bank. Lift your child up high to see all the action. At home – given simple tickets, pads, hats and toys – play will follow as the young child imitates the roles encountered in the community. Make a pretend bank with stamps and pads, a post office with old envelopes, and a train with a row of chairs and old tickets. (Teddy can go for a ride.) After a trip into the big wide world, consider how you could set up a play space for your child to imitate the experience. Playing real-life roles (plumber, postperson, shop assistant, librarian, train driver, and more) will be hours of entertainment for a toddler. Toddlers have an inner need to play everyday scenes to understand the world that they live in.

Big play – an imaginative way

Young children love big play spaces. A boat made by an upturned table; a shop with items from the larder and a pretend cash register (made from a box). Take a deep breath. It is OK for the house to look like an interesting mess at times! You can sit somewhere else to eat dinner. Children love to keep the same play up for a short while. They really like to ‘live’ into the role.

Outside play – a great escape!

Time playing both inside and outside is required each day. If a child is being disruptive inside, the freedom of the garden or park can work wonders. A sandpit is a great choice for imaginative and fulfilling outside play. Again, visit the charity shop for old cooking equipment (the real world); children also love toy diggers and tip-trucks (often found second-hand). Remember to cover the sandpit at night in case of neighbourhood cats. A sandpit can be made from logs, lined with black plastic and filled with fine builder’s sand. If you are renting your home, a paddling pool can be filled with sand instead. Mudpits can be fun, too! Combine with a cubby house, and hours of fun will follow. Bring out a washing-up bowl full of water to cook with, wash up in or float a bark boat in. 

Tree trunks and planks of wood from the bargain section of a hardware store can bring hours of balancing fun to the garden. Children love to test their muscles and skills. A plank may be the gangway to a pretend boat, or a space shuttle bridge! Create a little garden for your child to visit with a bug catcher and shovel. Planting veggies and seeds can be a magical activity. Hang a big cloth from a bamboo pole tepee or the washing line to make a play cubby. Big chalk can be a favourite on the driveway or paving stones. Keep your child connected to nature and in the fresh air by allowing time to play in an imaginative garden each day.

Remember that play is at the heart of childhood. Parents influence the play opportunities of their children. Toys need not be electrical, battery-operated, fancy or expensive; simple, repurposed and natural items allow the young child’s imagination to flourish, are kinder to the Earth, and help reduce plastic over-load.

Set up play spaces that nourish your child’s long-term play skills. Play keeps the hands busy, the heart warm and the mind active: a happy child. Imaginative thinking is the foundation for an extra-ordinary adult life. Simple and inexpensive (often repurposed) play spaces are worth their weight in gold.


Lou Harvey-Zahra is a popular parenting author of four books, including the bestselling Happy Child, Happy Home: Conscious Parenting and Creative Discipline, which has two chapters on the topic of play. Lou presents internationally and runs Skype parenting consultations worldwide.

Photo: Allan Mas


First published in Issue 59 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print. 


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