Einsten, one of the greatest minds in history, knew that we all do well to go beyond the limitations of what we have learned and know for certain in order to continue expanding and exploring the limitless possibilities of life itself. Encouraging creative expression and imagination through our work as therapists who specialize in supporting children and families is vitally important to facilitating healing, growth and positive connections.
Children will naturally engage in imaginary play with every day objects and often our work as counselors and therapists is to help parents understand how important it is to foster and encourage creative expression and imagination as well as to join in the play. Too often parents focus mostly on directly teaching children concepts, colors, numbers, and words rather than seeing the value in allowing children to explore through creative play and imaginative expression.
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Benefits of Encouraging Creative Expression & Imagination for Children & Families
- Imaginative play is how children explore and come to know the world around them. We can learn a lot about a child’s experiences simply by watching and tracking a child’s natural play with curiosity and wonder. A child’s imaginative play provides a window through which we as child and family therapists can see what a child is seeing, experiencing, thinking, feeling. Encouraging this level of creative expression and imagination play by providing the space and time as well as delighting in the child’s expressions with curiosity and pure presence on the part of the counselor is therapy in itself. Teaching parents to do the same helps parents to realize this window of wonder they can peer through in order to better connect with their child as well.
- Creative expressive play fosters social connections. It is through imaginative and creative expressive play that children explore their relationships to others and the world around them, developing a sense of belonging and connection with others. When parents are encouraged to engage with their children in creative expressive play, there is an important bonding experience that occurs as the child basks in the parent’s delightful participation. Children also can experience meaningful connections with siblings and peers when encouraged to engage in creative expressive play.
- Emotional intelligence is enhanced. When a child and family are encouraged to engage in creative expression and imagination together, the emotions we naturally feel as human beings can be explored and expressed playfully and creatively. Children and parents together are able to explore, express, identify and manage various emotions through pretend play and are able to recognize and experience empathy all of which are elements of developing emotional intelligence. I frequently recommend Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by Dr. John Gottman and use this in my work with parents.
- Problem solving skills develop. A parent doesn’t necessarily need to jump in to help a child learn how to solve a dilemma because playful and creative expression and imagination naturally allow a child to seek and solve problems. When a chid becomes stuck in the process a parent might join in and invite the child playfully to try another way together facilitating the child in discovering and developing executive functioning skills.
Ways to Encourage Children & Families to Play Creatively
- Nature play. Whenever possible, encourage parents to join with children out in Nature, engaging with all the wonders of the natural world that provides ample opportunity for exploration, sensory experiences and imaginative play. Tossing pebbles into a pond, hearing the sound of the kerplunk and the ripples that form on the surface of the water. Feeling the sensation of cool grass beneath bare feet in a meadow. A stick becomes a sword or a laser or a mighty staff. Snow or wet sand can be molded into creatures or castles. This book has some great ideas for encouraging nature play at home that I often recommend to parents.
- Boxes, paper towel rolls and colored tape. Invite families into the therapy room and introduce basic recyclable items such as empty cardboard rolls, paper plates and boxes with markers and painter’s tape and invite them to consider what they might create. Watch and wonder, delighting aloud as the child is allowed to lead and parents are guided to join and work with a child in transforming such basic items creatively into whatever they choose. Will they build a house? A train? a fort? The process of creating together fosters meaningful connections in the family.
- Arts and crafts supplies. Creative expression and imagination is encouraged when you have plenty of items on hand. Popsicle sticks, yarn, googly eyes, paints, crayons, markers, colored construction paper, scissors, glue, paint, poster board, play clay in the therapy room can invite children and families through directed activities or free-exploration to create puppets, critters, drawings, and objects that might symbolize any number of situations or scenarios. I like to encourage parents to set up a creative station at home with a cabinet or baskets of such supplies so children and families can come together through creating and expressing together at home as well as in the therapy room. For parents afraid of mess, I love these washable paints.
- Costumes and dress up pretend play. Children will naturally gravitate to role play, becoming characters they’ve seen in movies or imitating various adults they’ve observed in real life and often long for others to join in the pretend play. Having hats and coats, vests, wings, real life items such as purses, brief cases, suitcases, kitchen cookware, household items, fantasy character costumes invites children to explore. It’s important to encourage parents to be willing to play along and allow the child to lead in the pretend play.
- Balloon play. There are so many ways to incorporate balloons into helping children and families engage. See my article here called 10 Ways to Use Balloons with Children & Families
I am a firm believer that in working with children through play based therapy it is vital that we also work with parents to help them rediscover their own playful inner child and embrace creative expression and imagination as a way to engage and connect with their children. The creative play we encourage in the therapy room with families provides opportunities for transformative healing and growing, often facilitating and encouraging secure parent-child attachments and family bonding.