The Healing Power of Imaginative Play

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By Carmen Viktoria Gamper 

Just as adults benefit from talking about their challenges with friends or a therapist, many children benefit from processing upsetting experiences during pretend play. Perhaps you’ve noticed that when children freely play with blocks, stuffed animals, dolls or action figures, they frequently create pretend worlds. They craft exciting tales that are a mix of recognizable real-life events, movies and shows, and completely invented stories.  

During this kind of pretend play, children frequently experience “flow,” which is a deep state of focus that allows them to balance their thoughts and emotions in alignment with their stage of development. This kind of play is an innately healing activity that provides children a way to safely re-experience events they perceive as confusing or frightening within a context that makes sense to them.  

Children’s inner tension can stem from challenging real-life events, such as a doctor’s visit; from overhearing a parental conflict; or from virtual events, like seeing something scary on TV. In fact, “playing out” frightening screen content is particularly important because it allows them to return to feeling safe. As they play, a doll becomes a patient, two puppets become Mom and Dad fighting, or an action figure becomes a scary monster. By creatively revisiting what happened and imagining what could have happened, children relax, open up, and release tension.  

During their imaginative play, children transform from being victims into active participators and co-creators. The feeling that they have some control over the situation and the act of giving it personal meaning are part of the healing process. Something deep inside relaxes when they become co-creators. As they explore difficult emotions or threatening situations in a safe, self-chosen context, their inner balance is naturally restored. 

Imaginative play restores inner balance in essential ways that makes all the difference: after a good session of “playing out what’s inside,” children can listen and hear what others say, their anxiety diminishes, they’re more willing to cooperate, and they’re more interested in learning. 

Unless experiences are extremely traumatizing, children are often quick to let go of tension through their self-healing powers that spontaneously emerge during play. This doesn’t only apply to young children, but also to children in elementary grades and beyond. 

Children’s imagination and innate openness to healing are used with great success in non-directive play therapy, where therapists provide all the toys, figurines, and accessories kids might need to create imaginary settings to play out what’s within. It’s safe and easy to use some of the proven tools from non-directive play therapy at home and to support your children in doing their self-healing work.  

Use the following suggestions to offer your kids restorative play opportunities at home: 

1. Learn to recognize self-healing play. 

The next time your children play, observe what’s going on and see if you can recognize healing processes, such as your children talking to themselves or lending a voice to a figurine or puppet. Or, they may be having a dialog, telling a story, playing out a disagreement, or reenacting a movie scene that seems familiar, but is mixed with your child’s personal spin on it. Recognize that an important process is underway. Some children will talk out loud; some will whisper or quietly imagine their stories.  

2. Limit interruptions to their flow state. 

As your children focus on their play, be aware that they might be in a state of flow in which they are so captivated by their activity, they lose themselves in their imaginary world. If you talk to them, they may simply not hear you. Let them be in this state as long as they wish, supporting them by smiling approvingly and letting them know that their play is important to you by not interrupting them. 

3. Create space and time for your child to play. 

Prepare places in your home that your child can access anytime — perhaps a cozy corner with pillows and blankets. Provide play toys for pretend play, such as stuffed animals, dolls, and puppets, as well as accessories to create landscapes and settings, such as building blocks and toy trees, animals, and fences. Setting up an elaborate pretend play landscape is often enough to prompt a child to feel complete in the restorative play process. 

Your respect for your child’s play will make a huge difference in your relationship with your child. He or she will intuitively feel your support and will very likely put more trust in you more as a wise leader and understanding parent. 

Carmen Viktoria Gamper has worked internationally as an educator, advisor, coach and speaker for child-centered education. As founder of the New Learning Culture program, she supports parents, homeschooling families and schools in safely offering child-directed, flow-rich learning environments. Her new book is: Flow to Learn: A 52 Week Parent’s Guide to Recognize and Support Your Child’s Flow State – the Optimal Condition for Learning (New Learning Culture Publishing, March 27, 2020). Learn more at flowtolearn.com

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