Visionaries Inspiring Us Through Imaginative Play

“…the capacity to imagine alternative possibilities and to work out their implications emerges early in the course of childhood development and lasts a lifetime” (Harris, P. L., 2000. The Work of Imagination: Understanding children’s worlds. Wiley-Blackwell.)

I notice the children using their imagination and creativity in fabulous ways every day at the Compass ELC North Cavan School Age Program. From inventing scenarios, creating art work, building worlds, to asking thought provoking questions; children are always building on their imagination.

Research tells us that imagination fosters cognitive and social development, and this helps children meet their highest intellectual and social/emotional potential. In early childhood education, we feel critical thinking skills and creative problem solving abilities are essential for children’s healthy development. This is why I continue to encourage children to create new games, build new forts, play outside and ask many questions.

It has been suggested that “there is a close relationship between children’s learning environments and their learning outcomes” (Bland, D., Sharma-Brymer, V. (2012) Imagination in school children’s choice of their learning environment; An Australian Study). When children are offered an environment where they can use their imagination and creativity, they thrive. I take this very important finding into consideration when planning how to set up and present my school age program. At Compass ELC we offer, with great intention, invitations and materials with a child-centered pedagogy focus. As educators, we do our best to observe what the children are interested in at the present moment and elaborate on their ideas to create environments that allow them to further their interests and imaginations.

I have noticed the children in my program have wild and creative imaginations. Every day I make an effort to observe their interactions with one another to see how this correlates to their imaginative play. To enrich their play I offer invitations to spark their imagination and provide a vast array of open-ended materials to inspire creativity.

One particular focus that continually emerges in program is the creation of a “new world”. The children are always building forts and creating “rules” that govern how their world is run. They use blocks, tarps, blankets, chairs, trees, lego, and K’nex to vividly create every detail they envision.

This focus of “small world play” is apparent both inside the classroom and outdoors. Renowned educator and author David Sobel speaks to the concept of small world play:

“From sand boxes to doll houses to model train sets, children love to create miniature worlds that they can play inside of. Through creating miniature representations of ecosystems, or neighborhoods, we help children conceptually grasp the big picture. The creation of small worlds provides a concrete vehicle for understanding abstract ideas.”  (Sobel, D. (2008) The Seven Motifs of Outdoor Play)


It is interesting to see how the children create their worlds based on the environment they are in. When indoors, the children tend to use a lot of building materials to create smaller versions of new worlds. They build ‘forts’ that are large enough to sit in and use blocks to add more intricate details. Many conversations transpire among the children as they are building. I observe collaboration and perseverance until the children feel they have succeeded in creating the perfect ‘fort’, as they imagined it. Similarly, when children are outside they also collaborate to build forts. However, these tend to be bigger and more spacious, so they can play inside them. They often incorporate trees, bushes, sticks, rocks and in the wintertime snow, to create a place where they can hide away and retreat into their own constructed fortress or natural found places.

Once their forts are created, their imagination allows them to bring the space alive. They spend so much time creating scenarios that I never would have thought of. While I observe their imaginative play, I realize that this is a skill that adults have left in their past. Listening to children engage in imaginative play can bring a whole new perspective to adults.

Every day I am reminded of how imagination fosters creativity and enhances cognitive, social, and emotional skills. Children create worlds and scenarios that inspire them to ask thought-provoking questions of themselves and of one another; they enhance their social skills by working together while creating their ideal worlds and collaborating on their creative ideas. They also further their emotional development by experimenting with pretend emotions, based on make-believe situations. This offers the children the “freedom” to express themselves in a dramatic way without feeling judged or scrutinized.

Far too often, adults overlook the importance of imaginative play; it is more than just a game children engage in. It is a way for them to expand simple ideas, develop friendships, improve factual knowledge, gain ethical and ecological concern for their natural environment and most importantly, live into their imagination.

I feel it is so important for adults to encourage children to use their imagination because it not only prompts various aspects of development; but it could very well allow them to excel in their future endeavors.

“I believe if imagination is fostered, children will be visionaries. They will be the ones that imagine a world without cancer and make it happen. They will envision literary works that will change the world.” – Excerpt from Believing in the Unbelievable by Kerri Riel, Pedagogical Team Leader for Compass ELC School Age Programs

Loretta Shaughnessy, Site Supervisor, Compass ELC School Age Program, North Cavan
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