Expressive Arts & Design

Imaginative play: how children create their own storylines

As an experienced early years educator, I’m very comfortable with planning and sharing fun learning activities with my three-year old granddaughter, Daisy. But it’s important to remember that our grandchildren are developing all the time, even when we’re not watching or guiding them, and that sometimes you can learn as much simply by observing their play as you can by planning it.

On a recent summer day, I had just cleared up from a snack time and was about to join Daisy for some free play. She often encourages an adult to come and join her, and with the tidying completed, I had some time and attention to devote to her. But I quickly realised that, rather than joining her, this might be a great opportunity for me to observe and enjoy her imaginative play. 

Daisy was already completely engrossed in playing with a combination of Happyland animals and a mixed set of small-world animals. Her imaginative play area was comparatively vast, taking her from the carpet of our back room, out of the open backdoor and into our garden to the paddling pool (‘the water hole’). The narrative was a blend of excerpts from Disney’s The Lion King, Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea (the subject of Daisy’s 2020 World Book Day costume) and even elements from a recent family visit to a city zoo.  

On other occasions, I’ve watched Daisy take her toy cars and put animals into the seats. With a cowboy at the wheel, these cars race through the ‘tunnels’ made under our kitchen chairs to their business at various buildings on her nearby Duplo play farm.

A secret garden

This imaginative play sometimes happens after our regular story time with Daisy. Recently, we reread Moving Molly, a classic Shirley Hughes story about how a preschool girl uses imaginative play to respond to the upheaval of moving house.

A montage shows the cover of Shirley Hughes's picture book, Moving Molly and two inset images of the protagonist, a little girl called Molly, finding an overgrown garden to play in.
In Shirley Hughes’s 1978 picture book ‘Moving Molly’ the title character uses imaginative play to respond to the upheaval of moving house. © Shirley Hughes

Daisy wanted to play with her Duplo and set up an area beside her Duplo house to recreate her version of a location from the story: an overgrown garden that little Molly discovers next to her new house, full of stray cats and charming bric-a-brac. Then Daisy played with this constructed scene, creating her own narrative for an untold part of the story.

A garden made of Duplo, with a small Duplo girl surrounding by toy cats
Like Molly’s garden, Daisy’s Duplo garden is “a jungle for cats” and “a good place to play in if you were by yourself

When she feels exhausted after an active day, Daisy will often wander off to sit with her toys and relax with some imaginative play like this. Frequently these imaginative play scenarios are repeated over several days as Daisy continues to expand the narratives, stimulated by stories or recent events (occasionally we’ve heard characters being directed to stay two metres apart!).

This play is Daisy’s way of exploring events, feelings and emotions; about creating narratives and her own storylines. She is happy to engage in this imaginative play alone, with adults or with other children. This style of play allows Daisy to be imaginative and creative and very often she is so deeply involved in the play that it’s difficult to distract her from her engagement!

Daisy can’t read or write yet but she is developing a capacity to be imaginative and has found ways to express her ideas. In fact, like Molly in Shirley Hughes’s timeless storybook, Daisy is using this solo play to make sense of her world and the changes she observes, both internally and externally. And for a grandparent like me, it’s a very special story to watch unfold.

Granny Smith says

  • As your grandchildren enter the first stage of their formal education, it’s useful to know that children of Daisy’s age (40 months and upwards) should be able and encouraged to engage in imaginative role-play based on their own first-hand experiences, and to introduce a storyline or narrative into their play. 
  • This kind of play is even more important as our grandchildren find ways of making sense of their environment, and understanding their feelings about the very unusual times we are living through.

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