Three Imagination Rich Play Ideas

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by Beth Engelman, Creator of

As a former Kindergarten teacher, I’m often asked, “What’s the best way to prepare my kids for school?”  My response is always the same; let them play!  “Self-directed free play is one of the most natural and effective ways kids learn,” says Liza Sullivan, Executive Director for the Alliance for Early Childhood, “It gives children the opportunity to actively engage in their surroundings while also allowing children to discover information through observation, trial and error and creative problem solving.”

Parents can help foster playful experiences by giving their children space, materials, and time. At least a few days of vacation are coming up, and here are a few ideas to give you a jumpstart on your child’s imagination-rich play:

Pop-Up Playground

Just as the name indicates, a pop-up playground is an ordinary space that is easily transformed into an environment of wonderment. To make a pop-up playground, visit Costco, Sam’s Club or any other warehouse store that supplies unlimited free boxes. Fill your cart with as many boxes (varying sizes) as your car can possibly hold and trust me when I tell you the more boxes you have the better.

When you get home, bring all the boxes into a large play area such as a playroom, basement or backyard. Encourage your kids use the boxes as building blocks to build spaceships, skyscrapers or anything their heart desires. One of my son’s favorite things to build is an airport. He builds the main structure with boxes and then brings in his toy planes, cars and action figures, which further enriches the play experience.

Build a Fort

Another thing we love to do when the weather is nice is build a giant cardboard box fort in our backyard. We’ll stock the fort with books, blankets and other things “fort people” need such as a giant telescope made with a paper towel rolls, a flag made with a wooden dowel and cloth napkin and my personal favorite; milk and cookies.

Nature Scavenger Hunt

A great way to get your kids outdoors and on the move is with a nature scavenger hunt. I love to incorporate a little imaginative fun into the hunt by challenging my son to find items he might not typically spot. The following is a guide for an outdoor hunt. Note to parents: item #15 is indeed a trick question, but it’s a good challenge, a fun way to keep your kids engaged throughout the hunt, and it’s a piece of trivia they’ll never forget!

  1. Find something that wiggles.
  2. Find something that flies.
  3. Find a type of seed.
  4. Find a flower that doesn’t have any leaves.
  5. Find a rock with a perfectly smooth surface.
  6. Find something that smells good.
  7. Find something wet.
  8. Find something that is over 50 years old.
  9. Find something that was probably born in the last month.
  10. Find something that is shaped like a spiral.
  11. Find something that would be impossible to break.
  12. Find something that looks like a smiley face.
  13. Find a pattern that repeats itself at least 3 times.
  14. Find something that is orange.
  15. Find something that rhymes with orange. 🙂

Pop-Up Play Scenes

Sometimes going out on an adventure or creating a backyard playground is not in the cards. That doesn’t mean you can’t whip up some open-ended fun. Try making a pop-up play scene using poster board, markers and assorted toys. Not only are these scenes easy to make, but they also provide endless opportunities for open play. At my house airports and cities are all the rage but you can tailor these scenes to include castles, farms, jungles or anything else your child imagines.

You Need:

  • Poster Board
  • Art Supplies (such as crayons, stickers, or colored paper)
  • Pencil
  • Scissors


  • Lay the poster board on a flat surface and sketch out a scene.
  • Have your children decorate the scene with crayons, stickers, colored paper and any other art materials you might have on hand.
  • Use scissors to cut around the scene leaving the bottom section in tact.
  • Fold the scene up and lean it against a wall, couch or cardboard box.
  • Encourage your kids to add their own embellishments such as action figures, cars and anything else that will fit their narrative.

Need more inspiration? Check out this play material “cheat sheet,” courtesy of Liza Sullivan:

Construction Play

Materials that encourage building and imagination

Blocks, boxes, blankets, tape, tarps, plastic tubing, cardboard tubes, tires, poles, paint, rope, twine, fabric, buckets, pillows, sheets, tables, chairs, clothespins, clips, sticks, paper, pencils

Language Play

Materials to encourage the dramatization of stories

Handmade puppets, cut felt pieces on felt boards, instruments, songs, books

Large-Motor Play

Materials that encourage use of large body muscles

Balls, homemade obstacle courses, fabrics, ropes to make a pretend tightrope, floor tape, bicycles, music

Make-Believe Play

Materials that encourage pretending, problem solving, and imagination

Fabrics, scarves, yarn, ribbon, umbrellas, capes made from sheets, face paints, baskets, buckets, stones, pinecones, flowers, sticks, shells, feathers, pots, pans, mirrors, clothes pins, magnifying glasses, flashlights, paper towel tubes

Beth Engelman, M.Ed. is a former kindergarten teacher. Her math ideas and games have been published in a number of publications. She is also the author of several “edutainment” books and games including a series of workbooks for Disney Schoolhouse. Find inspiring ideas on her blog, Mommy on a Shoestring.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series,  along with our beautiful children’s booksmusic, and more.

Posted in: Parental Wisdom, Health & Wellness, Creative, Learn, Modern Parenting