What is Creative Play in Childhood?
Creative play in childhood is the ability of a child to play using imagination, symbolism, characters, and pretend.
As your child reaches pre-K and elementary school, you will want to see them engaging in creative play. This play may include acting out themes like Star Wars, ponies, or princesses. You want to see your child pretending that they are the characters in a fantasy setting.
Fantasy play includes ‘taking on a character as an agent of action.’ That is, they might pretend that they are the princess trapped in the castle or that they are the Jedi knight saving the empire. They may even take on the character’s voice and mannerisms in play.
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Symptoms of Lack of Creative Play in Childhood
- Plays functionally: your child is very practical and realistic in play; a truck is a truck, a train is a train
- Lack of imaginary play: your child doesn’t turn all the moving boxes into a fort or pretend to be the mommy of a doll
- Overly realistic: your child uses toys for the exact purpose; will say something like, “it is impossible for an action figure to have a pet dinosaur”
- Playing alone: your young child will engage with toys but struggles to play or make-believe with other kids
- Appears ‘in their own world’: your child seems oblivious to what other children are doing or insists on play activities that no one else wants to do
- Engages well in physical play but does not pretend: your child enjoys chase or wrestling instead of character play or pretending
- Acts bossy or controlling: your child always needs to have their own way and would rather play alone than do play something non-preferred
- Unsure about playing pretend: your child struggles with pretend play. They make comments like, “That plate is too small for his hand,” or “He could never fit in that spaceship”
- Not cooperative in play: your child lacks the ability to engage with other people in games or activities; may not be a good sport and including others
- Disrupts play activities: your child plays close by but doesn't pay much attention to their peers and does not try to play with them.
The wrecking ball…If creative play is an issue, you may find that your child comes onto the scene like a wrecking ball. They may walk up the train set at the bookstore and with one quick sweep of the hand, knock all the pieces onto the floor.
The disruptor…When guided to join the group, your child might steal the ball and run away. They might assume that they are playing “with” the kids, not even knowing that they are disrupting. As other children appear frustrated, your child might be confused or unaware of the situation and think they are all having fun.
The rule breaker…If this is an issue, your child is constantly changing the rules of the game. They might ‘never lose’ a game. Instead, they just change the rules or walk off with the game pieces. In the elementary grades, playing by the rules is very important. Peers will be patient with lots of diversions from the usual play activities, but they are much less patient with a child who keeps breaking the rules.
Causes of Lack of Creative Play in Childhood
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism is a disorder of social communication and restricted and repetitive behavior in childhood. It is common for children with autism to be more interested in toys and activities from their own perspective and to be less aware of the engagement and interest of others.
In autism, you often will see a lack of creative play, imaginative play, or symbolic play. One of the highest levels of play is called ‘symbolic’ play, which is the ability to pretend to be a character or to enact a whole pretend play scenario. Psychologists call this ‘taking a character as an agent of action.’ A child with solid skills in this area may pretend to be Batman, saying something like, “And now I get in my batmobile, grab Robin and head off to confront the Joker.” If the child’s symbolic skills are strong, they won’t mind that the batmobile is actually a yellow Toyota Corolla. It will be just fine that Robin is actually a baby doll.
We want to see creative and symbolic play skills emerge throughout childhood. Creative Play includes imagining that an object is more than its obvious use. For example, a child with good symbolic and creative play skills can imagine that a cup is a rocket ship or that a block tower is a building.
In autism, any or all of the above pretend and creative play skills may be absent. Many autistic children will say something like, “There’s no way that Batman could fit in that car.” Or, Batman’s not here; he’s in Gotham City.”
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Depression can affect your child’s ability to be motivated and care about others and creative play. If depression is a concern, you will notice that your child is lethargic. It is not that your child can’t play creatively; they are just unmotivated to play in general due to lack of energy or a persistent sad mood.
Trauma in childhood that is significant can impact a child’s ability to be creative. Trauma can affect one’s ability to see and think imaginatively. If trauma is preventing your child from playing creatively you will notice your child is stoic or angry. Your child is in survival mode. As you build a safe and nurturing environment for your child, you can expect p;ay skills will start to emerge.
What to Do About Lack of Creative Play in Childhood
- Structured social activities: Plan social activities for your child around their interests. Join a Lego or Robotics club; pursue the swim team or horseback riding. Find ways to have your child engage socially without leading to failure. Structured activities that involve turn-taking can model back-and-forth interactions for your child. These experiences can help children improve their social skills.
- Avoid team sports early on: While your child is still learning basic social skills, you may want to avoid team sports or highly competitive activities. You may choose to avoid soccer teams or baseball teams, which are large activities that require a lot of cooperation. Find something with an individual component but also social opportunities.
- Social groups: Social groups in your community or at your child’s school may be a way for your child to learn social skills and have these skills modeled for them. Some preschools have after-school enrichment groups. Elementary schools have movie nights or ‘Parent Night Out’ where your child can be around other kids in a non-competitive atmosphere. Provide breaks and downtime, but give your child social learning experiences.
- Playdates: While your child is learning play skills, structured and supervised playdates can help them practice. Even for older children, in 4th or 5th grade, it can be great to have a friend over to the house to hang out. When doing so, though, here are a few pointers.
- First, keep it short. Having a three or four-hour playdate asks a lot of your child’s social skills.
- Next, mix it up. Do not expect your child to ‘just play’ in the basement for hours with a peer. Help your child by having one part of the playdate at the park, one part in the basement, and maybe one part outside in the backyard.
- Last, end on a high note. One way to help your child get an invite to play again is to ensure the whole activity ends in a happy place. If things are getting quiet or conflict-ridden, wrap up the playdate early and help your child do something fun at the end. In child psychology, we know about ‘endpoint bias,’ which means we tend to evaluate a whole event by how it ended. If you want your child’s playmate to come back over, end things in a positive place.
- Book resources: There are a variety of great resources for social skills at the end of this article to help children learn about the importance of polite greetings, social smiles, active listening, and conversation skills [2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]
When to Seek Help for Creative Play issues in Childhood
If your child is past the age of 4 or 5, and you notice your child continuously struggles with imaginary and cooperative play, it is time to seek help. The earlier you can get help for your child the better the outcome. If you notice your child lacks the ability to play pretend, consistently disrupts the play of other kids only willing to go with their own idea, and is not cooperative, there is likely a concern worth addressing.
Professional Resources for Creative Play in Childhood
- Testing psychologist: to conduct an evaluation. A psychologist with expertise in childhood assessment can look at social skills, including shared enjoyment, cognition, language, and other areas like motor skills, executive function, or attention. An evaluation should result in a profile of strengths and weaknesses, any diagnoses that are relevant, and prioritized recommendations for treatment
- BCBA and ABA therapy team: to directly and systematically teach social skills. A Board Certified Behavior Analyst leads an ABA team that includes BCaBAs, line therapists called RBTs, and this therapy includes direct pivotal response treatment with your child as well as parent consultation and monthly team meetings for data review. This treatment has the most research to support its effectiveness with social symptoms in young children ages 2-7
- Social group therapy: to work on social skills. With older children, a mix of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy and social group therapy led by a psychologist, speech pathologist, or licensed therapist is recommended to work on social skills
- Speech pathologist: to work on pragmatic (social) language and conversation skills with a child individually or in a group setting
- School psychologist: to support a child at school. School psychologists often provide social groups, individual support, or parent consultation. They can help determine the best peer buddies or peer models, and support teachers in nurturing social development in the classroom
- Child find: to evaluate a young child lagging in social skills. They do not diagnose autism or other disorders, but they can test skill levels, provide free preschool and therapies to help with social skills
Similar Conditions to Struggles with Creative Play in Childhood
If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for information about other related symptom areas.
- Social presence: the skill of being comfortable being around other children
- Interacting: the skill of playing cooperatively with other children instead of just parallel play (side by side); taking turns; allowing other children to choose games and activities too
- Shared enjoyment: the skill of sharing fun and enjoying interactions with family and friends, not just enjoying the toy or game or activity itself; enjoying the social interaction moment
- Reciprocal conversation: the skill of having conversations that include a lot of listening, sharing, asking questions, and allowing the other person to engage equally in the conversation
- Restricted interests: when a child has interests related to a few very specific topics and has trouble talking about other things. In boys, these tend to stand out more, while in girls, their restricted interests tend to be more mainstream, like horses or dolls. With boys, you may see more unusual interests like air conditioners or mailboxes, though trains or Pokemon are also quite common
Resources for Lack of Creative Play in Childhood
Alvord, Mary K (2017). Conquer negative thinking for teens: A workbook to break the nine thought habits that are holding you back.
Association for Science in Autism Treatment, to learn more about effective and research-based interventions for Autism.
Baker, Jed. (2006). Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.
Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
Barton, Erin. Educating Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
Cook, Julia (2018). A flicker of hope.
Cook, Julia (2012). Blueloon.
Cook, Julia (2013). Blueloon Activity and Idea Book.
Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.
Kent, Jack (2009). There’s no such thing as a dragon.
Koegel Autism Center, University of California at Santa Barbara.
Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Ozonoff, Sally, Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.
Seligman, Martin E.P. (1995). The optimistic child: A revolutionary program that safeguards children against depression and builds lifelong resilience.
Sullivan, Lake (2013). How to get unstuck from the negative muck: A kid’s guide to getting rid of negative thinking.
Schab, Lisa M (2008). Beyond the blues: A workbook to help teens overcome depression.
Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective.
UCSB PEERS Clinic.
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