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How to Encourage Creative Play in Babies and Toddlers: Ideas and Activities

by Vannessa Rhoades 06 Jan 2023
How to Encourage Creative Play in Babies and Toddlers: Ideas and Activities

Imagination and inventiveness can manifest themselves in countless ways, from painting a picture to playing a song to telling a story. Creative play gives babies and toddlers the opportunity to do this. As caregivers, our aim should be to inspire a child’s natural urge to communicate and express themselves as frequently and fervently as they can. Let’s take a closer look at what creative play is and how to encourage it in your child.

What is Creative Play?

At its core, creative play activities allow children to examine new things, explore different ideas, and communicate their feelings. According to the British Council Worldwide, creative play comes naturally to a child. It is both an independent and collaborative process that encourages children to improvise, think about new possibilities, and explore other aspects of their personalities.

Characteristics of Creative Play

Creative play is increasingly recognized as an interactive process that encourages experimentation and improvisation, taking chances, repurposing items or using them in a new way, and playing with possibilities, while honoring a child’s individual freedom to make their own creative choices. It’s marked by several distinct characteristics and creative processes, including:

  • divergent thinking (building with blocks)
  • broad associations (different story ideas and elements; wide fantasy and remote images)
  • cognitive flexibility (using toys in different ways, manipulating story elements, loosening of time and space)
  • problem-solving (building new things, playing with mechanical objects)
  • perspective-taking (role-playing, pretending to be other characters)
  • narrative development (story plots and sequences)
  • affect themes and symbols (monsters, cops and robbers, yummy food)
  • emotional expression (dolls fighting; dolls hugging)
  • joy in pretending (pleasure and absorption in the play)
  • integration of affect (placing emotion in an appropriate narrative)

Creative play activities can be as varied as the children themselves. These common characteristics describe creative play experiences that are entertaining, interesting, and educational for little ones.

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How to Encourage Creative Play for Babies and Toddlers

When it comes to creative play, there’s no one way to do it. The most practical approach is to consider activities and games that best support your little one where they are developmentally right now. Based on their research, the British Council Worldwide has developed a series of guidelines for encouraging creative play.

Provide play materials

Providing simple, age-appropriate materials that can be easily reused in different ways can promote inclusive creative play. This can also improve the flow of game play and foster independence as the players develop ideas.

Let kids create their own structure 

Allowing children to independently build a meaningful narrative for their activity will keep them engaged in creative play games longer. Tight rules and restrictions, on the other hand, can lead to frustration and disengagement. 

Give them space

Give children the space and autonomy to design and build creations they feel connected to. As a caregiver, try to resist the urge to jump in with instructions or suggestions (unless something is unsafe or becoming a little too messy).

Foster trust and a nurturing environment

Creating a safe, nurturing environment where children feel comfortable and willing to take risks is essential to the creative process. In a group setting, allowing children to share their creations with one another in a safe, non-judgmental space encourages collaborative learning, helps build confidence, and alleviates self-doubt.

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Creative Play Games for Babies

Even infants can engage in creative play! For babies, your main goal should be to offer plenty of opportunities for them to express themselves and safely explore their environment. Older infants may enjoy some carefully supervised finger painting. Newborns can learn about self-expression by shaking toys, listening to stories and songs, babbling with you, making silly faces, and gazing into their caregivers’ eyes. Here are a few other ideas:

  • Dance and sing with your baby. Hold them and move to the beat of the song. Babies enjoy repetition so feel free to play your favorite over and over again!
  • Talk during tummy time. Make eye contact with your baby. Talk to your baby about what’s going on around them. Make funny faces and silly sounds.
  • Play with baby-safe musical instruments. Rattles and chimes are a simple way for babies to observe cause and effect.
  • Read colorful board books together. Touch-and-feel books encourage babies to examine and explore with their fingers.

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Creative Play Games for Toddlers and Older Children

Obviously, creative play for 4-year-olds looks different than it does for newborns. Older children may want to sculpt clay, create a mini-drama for their dolls and action figures, or dance to music. Toddlers who are able to grasp a paintbrush or crayon may want to try creating a colorful art display to hang on the wall, for example. Provide the materials, urge them to create and explore ideas on their own, and try to avoid jumping in with instructions or advice (unless something is dangerous or becoming a little too chaotic). Here are a few suggestions:

  • Go outside. Nature is an excellent place for toddlers and older children to explore their creativity. Visit the beach and play with the shells and sand. Hike to the nearby park and go on a scavenger hunt.
  • Paint or draw. Provide your little one with art supplies and let them get to work.
  • Make music. Give your child a few musical instruments to explore. If you don’t have any, use wooden spoons and pots for percussion. A plastic Easter egg filled with rice or dry beans makes a great rattle. Encourage your child to make music that matches how they feel.
  • Explore your community. Go see a musical or dance performance or visit a museum to foster an appreciation for the arts and nurture your child’s creativity.
  • Make sculptures. Let your child play with modeling clay or dough. They can sculpt freestyle or create something more complex, like buildings or pretend pieces of food.

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The Takeaway

Creative play is entertaining, chaotic, and full of essential developmental benefits for your child. Most of all, it’s your child’s chance to explore the world around them and learn how to express themselves. Give them the space to be hands-on without getting too involved. Simply stand back and observe all the amazing ideas your child will come up with on their own. 


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