15 Toys That Encourage Imaginative Play

posted: 04/14/15
by: Amy Suardi
15 Toys That Encourage Imaginative Play

Everyone is saying it: children need lots of creative play, make-believe, and free time in order to develop to their highest potential. Intellectually, emotionally, academically, physically -- any way you cut it, imaginative play is good for our children. Want to get your kids Into college? Let them play, said CNN last year. And the New York Times reported that the self-regulation skills that dramatic play develops "have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests."

But in the day of the overscheduled kid, the dominance of corporate branded character toys, and the proliferation of digital media -- not to mention the fear of the untold perils outside -- imaginative play is hard to come by. We often joke about how kids are more interested in the box the toy came in than the toy itself, yet it takes courage to choose toys for our children that don't talk, walk, zoom, vroom, light up, or touch down.

But if we as parents really believe that going unplugged is good for kids (count me in!), how can we steer them toward some good old-fashioned fun? "A toy that nurtures creative play is ninety percent child and only ten percent toy," says Susan Linn, Harvard psychologist and author of The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World. "Play is useful for children, and engaging and exciting for children, when they drive the play, when they're in charge of what's going to happen in the play," says Linn.

Here are some ideas, taken from my own life with four kids and no TV, and from other free play proponents.

This toy combines the best of both worlds. Even though it has buttons to push and beeps to hear, it really comes to life when kids act out the customers and salespeople. The drawer holds life-sized bills, but kids can make their own money, and even write checks if they're out of cash. They can make merchandise with play food or real objects around the house, and even experiment with pricing by using removable price labels. (Cash Register, $59)

Dress-Up Clothes

Just like a glittery dress can make mom feel like a million bucks, a fanciful outfit can transport a kid out of the quotidian world of the playroom, preschool, or backyard and into something extraordinary.

When choosing dress-up clothes, steer away from Disney princesses and Pixar characters and toward outfits that require the child to come up with the storyline from scratch. (Hint: All the dress-up accessories you need can probably be found in your closet and at the local thrift store.) (Super Hero Cape, $19.99)

Doctor Kit

Kids of all ages know what it means to "play doctor," and there's a reason for that. There's something so satisfying about both being the doctor who knows everything and is in control, and the patient who gets touched and prodded and paid close attention to.

The last time my kids played doctor, they wrote up prescriptions and created a little hospital out of blankets draped over chairs. (The invalid's fortunes improved drastically when he got to be entertained and fed while lying on the sick couch.) (Doctor Kit, $16)

Gardening Tools

The world of nature is a, well, natural setting for imaginative play, and we can give kids incentive to join us outside by letting them have their own set of tools. Kids want to copy whatever grown-ups are doing, but if there is only one trowel, gardening can become the opposite of therapeutic.

Give them their own set of kid-sized tools and the chance to get creative with plant life and you never know what will happen. Perhaps they'll help you weed. Perhaps they'll end up creating a habitat for fairies or gnomes. Either way, you win. (Gardening Set, $13)

Model Cars

If you happen to have wee wheel-lovers, you know that they treat their vehicles like dolls. My boys tote them around everywhere and create scenarios for their cars as if they were people. They tilt their heads so they can check out how the wheels turn over all sorts of terrain, and they test how far they can go -- on rugs, on wood, on mulch, and through the air.

As much as I love the look of stylized and wooden cars, my kids always go for the most realistic ones. (Works the same with cell phones, right?) Hot Wheels-type cars are so small and lightweight that you can pop a few in your purse for entertainment on the run. (Hot Wheels Gift Pack, $20)


Parents who own microscopes say these tools have the power to keep their kids busy for hours and hours, all the while fostering a love of science and nature. There's no end to the number of things that kids can examine under this powerful yet affordable scope -- from translucent liquids like pond water and Coke to solid materials like pennies, leaves, and yarn. (My First Lab Duo-Scope Microscope, $64)

Musical Instruments

You gotta love the name of this set: Band in a Box. Of course you may second-guess how good of an idea this was once they start shaking that tambourine, but a box of instruments is better for a kids' creativity than handing them an iPod Shuffle.

Listening to music should be part of every child's growing-up experience, but allowing them to experiment with the physical act of making sounds is important too. The next step for a child who seems interested in music is a more life-like instrument like a recorder or a basic keyboard. We did a lot of research and are happy with the Casio SA-76 and songbook Teaching Little Fingers to Play that we chose for our eight-year-old. (Band in a Box, $25)


Like Legos, Play-Doh will probably never go out of style as catalyst for creative play. Even though Legos now come in kits with detailed instructions and Play-Doh is packaged with molds and accessories, the kid-friendly clay is still just putty in their hands.

The bright colors and squishy consistency are enticing for kids, and I don't think I'm alone in saying that Play-Doh is one of the few messy things that I'm willing to fuss with. I ask my kids to make me spaghetti and meatballs, caterpillars and snails, bracelets and wheels. ( (Play-Doh Case of Colors, $5)

Play Kitchens

Anything that encourages role-playing is considered good for the brain. Staying in character requires discipline and impulse-control, and promotes the social skills we'll need as adults.

This IKEA kitchen can be embellished with fabric vegetables, pots and pans, and cooking utensils. I've also found some pretty adorable felt cupcakes and cookies on Esty that are so well-made and attractive that they will be hard to give away when my kids grow out of them. (Duktig Mini-Kitchen, $138)

Colorful Scarves

When I was writing Make-Believe: Free Yet Worth Millilons for my blog, I asked readers what toys encourage creativity, and scarves were a favorite answer. A square piece of fabric? It's amost annoyingly simple, but it's true.

A simple scarf -- and the bigger the better -- can be used in a thousand ways to fuel pretend play. From a dress to a turban, a tent to a curtain, a scarf is amazingly versatile. Plus, when tucked away for the night, it won't take up precious space in your house. (Tip: You can also get fun and funky scarves at Goodwill to save money.) (Play Silk, $15)

Building Blocks

How many times in life are we required to take basic building blocks and create something fantastic? That's why we still love building blocks, and these classic wooden ones are beautiful. Kids can make garages for their cars, stalls for their plastic animals, or castles for their royals. You can get more elaborate with blocks tailored for various buildings, but sometimes simple is better. (Classic Embossed Alphabet Blocks, $30)

Colored Pencils

With a piece of paper and a box of colors, you can create anything. Once a child gets beyond crayons, he should never be without a set of colored pencils: We use colored pencils at our house for everything from birthday cards to door signs. Colored pencils are spread on our table almost every day, and my daughters are big into creating their own paper dolls. Much more versatile than markers, pencils like these by Dick Blick can even be blended with a paintbrush. (Set of 36 Fantasia Colored Pencils, $17)


Almost any form of outdoor play will encourage imagination and creativity. However, with all the glowing, lighted things in the warm indoors, it's hard for both kids and adults to pull themselves away and out the door. With enticing props like this easy-to-install swing -- or a hammock, or a kite, or a sandbox -- kids have a reason to run outside. (Tree Swing, $59)

A Doll Stroller

Girls and boys alike seem to love to push around someone or something in a vehicle just their size. Whether the toy simply encourages physical activity or whether it fuels role play, this stroller by well-respected Nova Natural looks sturdy enough to pass down from child to child, and attractive enough for grown-ups to want to. (Doll Stroller, $55)

Animal Figurines

Collections of little plastic animals can be scooped up and taken out to the backyard, as my neighbor's kids used to do, where they created entire landscapes for herds of zebras, elephants, and lions. These mini-savannahs involved watering cans and mud, but animals can just as easily make noises, talk to each other, and ride in the back of mini pick-up trucks indoors on the bathroom rug. (Melissa & Doug Fold and Go Mini Barn, $36)

Even though we've given you lots of ideas here that involve spending money, the truth is you probably have everything you need right now to get those tot-sized creative juices flowing. In fact, encouraging imaginative play requires a kind of bravery, because it's really more about subtracting than adding.