• Blog
  • by: Stuart Brown, MD. National Institute for Play
  • November 27, 2019

Imaginative and Pretend Play: Imaginative Play is an Important Behavior to Promote Lifelong Creativity

In previous blogs, we've reviewed broad ways of seeing play behavior and provided an expanded intellectual understanding of play; however the most value of play is gained when one experiences it as a joy-producing and life-enhancing "state of being."

Experiencing the joy of play can expand one's view from its being for kids only - with occasional non-work adult escapism - to a fresh, invigorating recognition of the many lifelong situations in which playfulness can be experienced. Whether deep engagement from the solitary joyful collection of four-leaf clovers, or exuberant playground rough and tumble chaos, to an elderly nursing home occupant reveling in hearing a beloved operatic aria, all represent states of play.

Common elements that identify a behavior as play or playful are spontaneous engagement, joy producing emotions, intrinsic motivation (done for its own sake guided by authentic personal preferences) as well as outcomes not expected by the player(s) such as increased personal mastery, more emotional regulation and ability to adapt to and handle life situations with greater resiliency. The benefits are manifold: it fosters the use of novelty to add new skills and knowledge, which is beneficial at any age.

Last month we began to focus on the uniquely human play propensity for imaginative or pretend play. While we are enacting pretend-imaginative play, we are the imagined characters. That it does not fully reflect reality is not a problem; the pretend-real dualism that characterizes imaginative early play gradually is blended more and more with the reality of seeing the world through more mature eyes. However, and this is a big however...to maintain a rich imaginative life grounded in the freedom to play with possibilities is key to maintaining a creative, adaptive life as one matures. This capacity to continue to playfully imagine is what animates the creative sessions of corporations such as IDEO, with culture changing outcomes from group sharing of imaginative ways of problem solving.

Imaginative and pretend play are necessary and significant aspects on the path toward becoming competent adults, and also seeing imaginative-pretend play as a prerequisite to experiencing life as part of living as a fully human adult. This is not the usual way of seeing imaginative life. Not all imagination is playful, but when it is not driven by anxiety or pressure for solution to a pressing problem, it qualifies as play.

Since play is deeply embedded in both playful animal and human behavior, it can be evoked by wide variety of "play triggers." It is, however, a unique pattern of human play. Like other forms of play, human playful imagination is often sparked by "triggers" in the environment. They may be physical, situational, or verbal. PlayCore has studied many of these and incorporates them into a wide variety of play-evoking settings for children and adults alike. The play-driven internal narratives that youthful play produces becomes the essence of the stream of consciousness-self, the REAL SELF; this private thought stream is the product-an amalgam of the evolving pretend-narrative. (And upon closer examination, it continues to elaborate as life progresses. We never relinquish our imaginations, they just often get lost in the many demands of adulthood, or because we fail to honor the importance of keeping our adult imaginations fully alive.) But preceding the actual engagement into a play state usually requires anticipatory playful imagination. The many basic elements of play, with imaginative play being one of its fundamentals are necessary components of our lifelong design to play. It is common consensus that kids need to play. However, the balanced adult life needs sufficient amounts of our preferred modes of play to keep us optimistic and better able to deal with life's real demands.

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