Imaginative play is the bulwark of the play experience, playing house, or cops and robbers, replicating the adventures of favourite characters from books, films and TV or pretending to cook, mend cars or be an astronaut its all part of a child’s rich inner life, the life of the imagination.

This kind of play stretches the child’s creative abilities, let’s them test out roles and ideas in a safe environment and when done with others helps forge the ability to cooperate, to have empathy and to make friends and develop relationships.

Sometimes children just need to be left alone inside their own heads to make up the stories that speak to them and which address what they need to work through in their lives in a safe way.

So what toys encourage imaginative play and enhance a child’s creativity and exploration of the real or the fantasy world?

To some extent all toys and dolls that are played with in a way that includes role playing or telling made up stories are suitable, they don’t necessarily even have to appear related if the child’s imagination is sufficient – remember the large cardboard box that was a racing car or the blanket over a table that became a fort or a castle or even a spaceship? Children can do so much with so little, but that said there are some lovely things that make the experience even more special.

While babies and very young children do not indulge much in pretend play so much as exploration of anything and everything that crosses their path by the time a child is three its time to really begin feeding their imaginative side.

For the younger child who want to pretend to be just like the adults around them there are many lovely replicas of everyday items from play kitchens and pots and pans through to tool sets and even play houses and other enclosures to pretend in.

At the top of the range are some quite high ticket items – perhaps these are a bit overboard when it comes to price and certainly are not suitable if there is not room enough in the house to store them but still they are lovely and if you have both the money and the space would be a stunning gift. Alternatively if you are childminder, or its a special event present or perhaps if it’s a shared present between several children it might even represent value for money. That said, I know your finances are none of my business but please, please, please, if you do not have the money easily to hand do not go into massive debt to buy your kids stuff – they will be more harmed by your stress or needing to work multiple jobs to afford them. Extravagant presents are nice: happy parents are nicer!

The play house

The play house (sometimes called a Wendy House) or these days just as often a play castle or a play fort gives children a place to enact out all their fantasies. Usually built on a child’s scale, smaller and with cute features that fit little hands rather than big ones- for one eye everything fits them and their needs and it is adults who are the wrong size. Having an adult have to crouch over to fit through the door when they get invited to a doll’s tea-party can result in all manner of giggles. At their best playhouses give children a sense of ownership and control – they can enact all sorts of scenarios from real life and their imagination but place themselves firmly in the seat of power.

The most extravagant examples of play houses easily available online were the ones available in America which looked amazing but cost anything up to about $11,000 (about £8000) of course I have never seen one in real life so I hunted around to see what others were saying about the product but I could not find any real (as opposed to funny fake) reviews from any verified buyers so cannot in all conscience recommend them – they sure do look pretty though.

Would a wood-shed do?

It seems to me that if you have the external space and the money It might be worth purchasing a decent shed and putting a little effort into making it appeal to the age of the children now and then revamping it every four or five years. That way a single purchase could spend five years as a younger kid’s playhouse, then have a makeover and spend five more years as an older kids den or even a teenager’s escape pod before having yet another makeover and entering a final phase as a storage shed or even an adults garden getaway. Sounds like better value for money to me and makes a potentially valuable addition to your child’s life for a number of years to come.

I like these sheds because they kind of look like little houses but I am sure other ones are available. Just make sure that there is a good solid base, that any lighting etc is done by a properly qualified person and if you expect it to be used all year round you might want to add some form of insulation to keep it a more constant temperature.

Keeping the play house real

On a still quite large but much more realistic budget I like these play houses. They are solid, dependable, they wear quite well and I have been seeing them in friend’s houses and in kindergartens and nurseries for years. They take up a lot of space so unless you have a huge house they probably need to be in the garden. The instructions all say that they are weatherproof and light proof to a certain degree but some digging around has shown that you get the longest life out of them if there is some kind of shelter from the elements. I know of one childminder who has one set up in her converted garage playroom and someone else who has it set up on the patio under a porch and they have both lasted years. I saw a picture on the internet recently where someone had repurposed a plastic playhouse into a chicken coop – presumably after the children were finished with it.

Furnishings and fun stuff

Be aware that the house comes with nothing to put into it – not necessarily a problem as we want kids to use their imaginations, but you might want to add to the house contents over time. Kitchen stuff always seems to go down well as does stuff to play shops. I like this fisher price kitchen and table. Add in some pots and pans and some toy food and there is hours of fun. If you have a cash register the food stuff can double up for buying and selling as well. In fact there is no end of stuff you can buy or make to go into a playhouse, which in the amazing world of a child’s imagination becomes a castle, a fort, a workshop, a school or indeed anyplace at all.

Make your own make believe.

Remember if you want to have a go at making some of this stuff for yourself you can take a look at the pages on home made toys. Its amazing what you can do with a bit of up-cycling, some cardboard boxes or a few scraps of fabric or yarn. Maybe involve older children in it as a kind of craft project for double the play value.

Not everyone has room for a whole play house so the ones that put up and down, like tents can seem like a good idea. I like the ones that look like houses and by all accounts it can be a pain if one of the plastic pipes breaks but that is not an insurmountable problem and at that price point I think they can offer good value. There is also the added advantage of easy movability, different rooms, the garden in summer or even take to grandma’s for a change of scenery.

Don’t forget that no play house is complete without a tea set, and remember try to make the time to go to tea with your child and their toys when invited. Memories (and photographs) of parents who came to tea-time can be be a real stand out moment and are often treasured forever. My own mother let me serve her fizzy Fanta orange and chocolate chip cookies from my little china tea set and I remember it as if it was yesterday, even though it was more than forty five years ago.

The dressing up box and other props.

The other stalwart of pure imaginative play, the thing that lets children explore other roles and what it is like to be a doctor, a firefighter, an astronaut or a princess, is the dressing up box. All kids like to take on the outward appearance of a superhero, their favourite book or TV character or a creature from the mysterious world of ‘adults with jobs’. Of course you can always let them just borrow your shoes (they are probably going to do that anyway) or tie a tea towel round their shoulders for a cape and let their imaginations supply everything like we did back when I was a child, but these days there are some seriously wonderful dressing up costumes available and sometimes additional realistic props make such a difference.

Fun superhero costumes abound as do Disney princess outfits. I like to offer kids a wide choice of dressing up clothes as possible but as usual I have my eye on play value. Some outfits are not put together very well and you will need to make a choice between price, quality, durability and the speed at which the children are growing ( and hence growing out of) the custom made outfits.

Currently I like Batman, Elsa, and doctors’ outfits – all widely available online.

You will need to think carefully about your child’s current obsession ; do they want to be a firefighter, a dancer, an astronaut, a police officer a doctor or a scientist? Go with the flow and let them have the accoutrements of their dreams and you never know they might eventually turn them into reality.

One of the best ways to get around the growing out of stuff too quickly, other than making your own, is to go for essential accessories that suggest a character or archetype bit without requiring a complete costume from head to toe. It can also be good to tie in with books they are reading, films they like or projects that they might be doing at school.


  • A viking helmet
  • A centurion’s breastplate
  • A pirate’s hook
  • A tiara
  • A fairy’s wand
  • Harry Potter’s broomstick