The other day my grandchild was playing dress up and asked me and her grandpa to be her audience. She decided to have a fashion show, and even asked for pencil and paper so she could write down her name and give us her autograph. This image took me back to my own childhood of orchestrating plays on the back porch, playing grocery store at the kitchen table, and dress-up with old clothes in the attic.

This is the magical thinking of childhood that helps the brain develop creativity. This creativity, if allowed to blossom, is the same creativity that helps the scientist discover new cures for diseases, companies to come up with the next technological advances and inventions, and leaders to move their countries into peace.

When your child is little, under the age of two, he understands the world through his senses. But as he grows into his toddler years, and begins to understand the way things operate, he will begin to use his imagination to explain the mysteries of his world. Imaginative play is arguably the most important play your child will ever participate in… more important than all the toys, all the games, and all the things you buy for him to help him enhance his learning.

It is imaginative play that helps your child relate to his feelings and strong emotions, to gain control over his behavior, and to work through his darker thoughts and feelings of anger, fear and guilt. You may be aware of the use of dolls, for example, by therapists and mental health professionals to help children document emotional and physical abuse. Further, pets and other children, and even you, mother or father, can become an actor in your child’s fantasy world. Pets, for example, give children that ally to talk to, dress up and play with, who usually listen and can be manipulated freely. Moreover, imaginative play is both stress-reducing and self-soothing, two very important remedial needs of childhood.

So the question becomes, if creative play is so important, how do you offer it to your child? Like everything else, there are rules of engagement, and you as a parent need to know the rules.

Helpful tips when encouraging imaginative play

  1. Don’t discount, shame or embarrass your child for his imagination, but rather, play along and be part of his fantastical world… only if invited.
  2. Let children use things that are part of the house, rather than going out and buying a lot of toys. Remember the tents you built between two chairs using a sheet, or the fort you made under your bed? These are the things that really excite and stimulate the imagination… the simple things, the real things… old clothes, blocks, dolls, clay, pots, pans, beads, colored pencils, crayons, and paper that can be made into invitations, pictures, playbills, menus and so on.
  3. A great way to stimulate creativity is simply to read to your child in a child-directed way, meaning to use open-ended questions to provide the opportunity for imaginative outcomes to the very story that you are reading. There are so many advantages to this, including the acquisition of language and the enhancement of IQ.
  4. The most important thing about creative play is that it should be free play; let your child take the lead. He will let you know if he needs private time, or if he wants you to be a participant in his scenario – but, you should be around. If you’re not wanted, you don’t have to engage, but you do have to be there to supervise if a problem arises. You have to create a safe and rich contained environment, so that you can be there if needed, without interfering if not included.
  5. Finally, bedtime is actually a wonderful time for deepening the imagination, so leave enough time in the bedtime schedule for that to occur. The bedtime ritual should include a little reading from mom or dad that can spur a child’s imagination, before he falls off to sleep. Twilight time, when a child is in that soft space between awake and asleep, is a wonderful time for him to use his imagination, and nighttime stories help direct that experience.

In my next blog post, I will share some specific ideas that will help you spark your child’s imagination.


  • Dr. Gail Gross

    Author and Parenting, Relationships, and Human Behavior Expert

    Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) and member of APA Division 39, is a nationally recognized family, child development, and human behavior expert, author, and educator. Her positive and integrative approach to difficult issues helps families navigate today’s complex problems. Dr. Gross is frequently called upon by national and regional media to offer her insight on topics involving family relationships, education, behavior, and development issues. A dependable authority, Dr. Gross has contributed to broadcast, print and online media including CNN, the Today Show, CNBC's The Doctors, Hollywood Reporter, FOX radio, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Times of India, People magazine, Parents magazine, Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine, USA Today, Univision, ABC, CBS, and KHOU's Great Day Houston Show. She is a veteran radio talk show host as well as the host of the nationally syndicated PBS program, “Let’s Talk.” Also, Dr. Gross has written a semi-weekly blog for The Huffington Post and has blogged at since 2013. Recently, Houston Women's Magazine named her One of Houston's Most Influential Women of 2016. Dr. Gross is a longtime leader in finding solutions to the nation’s toughest education challenges. She co-founded the first-of-its kind Cuney Home School with her husband Jenard, in partnership with Texas Southern University. The school serves as a national model for improving the academic performance of students from housing projects by engaging the parents. Dr. Gross also has a public school elementary and secondary campus in Texas that has been named for her. Additionally, she recently completed leading a landmark, year-long study in the Houston Independent School District to examine how stress-reduction affects academics, attendance, and bullying in elementary school students, and a second study on stress and its effects on learning. Such work has earned her accolades from distinguished leaders such as the Dalai Lama, who presented her with the first Spirit of Freedom award in 1998. More recently, she was honored in 2013 with the Jung Institute award. She also received the Good Heart Humanitarian Award from Jewish Women International, Perth Amboy High School Hall of Fame Award, the Great Texan of the Year Award, the Houston Best Dressed Hall of Fame Award, Trailblazer Award, Get Real New York City Convention's 2014 Blogging Award, and Woman of Influence Award. Dr. Gross’ book, The Only Way Out Is Through, is available on Amazon now and offers strategies for life’s transitions including coping with loss, drawing from dealing with the death of her own daughter. Her next book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, is also available on Amazon now and teaches parents how to enhance their child’s learning potential by understanding and recognizing their various development stages. And her first research book was published by Random House in 1987 on health and skin care titled Beautiful Skin. Dr. Gross has created 8 audio tapes on relaxation and stress reduction that can be purchased on Most recently, Dr. Gross’s book, The Only Way Out is Through, was named a Next Generation Indie Book Awards Silver Medal finalist in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the categories of Death & Dying as well as Grief. Her latest book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, was the National Parenting Product Awards winner in 2019, the Nautilus Book Awards winner in 2019, ranked the No. 1 Best New Parenting Book in 2019 and listed among the Top 10 Parenting Books to Read in 2020 by BookAuthority, as well as the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Gold Medal winner in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the category of How-To. Dr. Gross received a BS in Education and an Ed.D. (Doctorate of Education) with a specialty in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. She earned her Master’s degree in Secondary Education with a focus on Psychology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Dr. Gross received her second PhD in Psychology, with a concentration in Jungian studies. Dr. Gross was the recipient of Kappa Delta Pi An International Honor Society in Education. Dr. Gross was elected member of the International English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta.