When the air is full of tension, when the frequency of fights begins to overwhelm, when you are not feeling so much love towards the behaviour of your children it is a wonderful time to stop whatever it is you are doing and play with them. But boy am I glad the days of imaginative play are over because now I can play a game of cards with them, play a board game, play poison ball on the trampoline or even just cuddle up on the couch and watch a kids movie together. All you need to do is spare the time and the results will save you time in the long run (reducing time spent disciplining them).
When I start playing with my boys I notice the smiles and laughter, their behaviour improves by a multiple of ten and my own blood pressure drops and mood improves. Big events like a family bike ride, baking (it’s big for us) or outings do not often achieve the same results for us because they present triggers for anxiety. Such activities are more rewarding when planned in advanced and well organised for a time when we are all fresh and energetic.
As for imaginative play, my children and I have autism and many health professionals have recommended that young children with autism be extended in this area because imaginative play is something that people with autism are proposed to lack in, although the results of imaginative and pretend play are variable among people with autism (Woodard 2011). I can see the value of imaginative play as being like role-play or a rehearsal for real life and therefore teaching valuable skills (social or other).
But honestly, as a general rule, I find imaginative play challenging in the sense that in order for it to be fun you have to really think outside the box. The amount of thought I have to put into it to be enjoyable has a high energy cost for me. Otherwise, imaginative play is just too boring to contemplate. I think I share this in common with my son Jeremy (unlike Damian) who is only ever interested in imaginative play when someone else is leading it. Jeremy is one of those kids who lines things up and catalogues things when playing alone. I don’t look at that as some kind of dysfunction. That kind of play has its benefits too. I consider us to be maths and science people.
However, when Jeremy was younger, I could see the benefit in imaginative play for him because if other kids were doing it, I wanted to make sure that he could understand the concept and join in at the very least. An occupational therapist, who had an interest in the area of imaginative play in children with autism, recommended the resource ‘Learn to Play’ for Jeremy. ‘Learn to Play’ is essentially a detailed step-by-step guide, with play scripts, on how to develop a child’s imaginative play skills for each developmental level. I did find it the resource useful so it may be of interest to you but honestly I also found it laborious.
Have you ever had a pretend cup of tea with your child? I have dozens of times, and I don’t even drink tea in real life. How many times can you blow on a hot cup of tea before you hyperventilate? I get bored and my boys detect when I am bored and it’s just not as much fun. Now if I had my way, I might be able to mimic (really dramatically) a waiter in a cafe, who spills the coffee before reaching you and has to clean it up and apologises profusely for the inconvenience and offers you a free coffee in compensation. When I (the waiter) go back to the kitchen (feeling really bad about my mistake), I debrief with a fellow waiter about what a terrible week I have had (what with my girlfriend breaking up with me and my bike being stolen and all). My waiter friend sympathizes with me and tells me not to worry about the spilt coffee saying that it’s ‘no big deal’ and offers me a ride home. Now, that’s a little more interesting.
Have you ever played doctors and nurses? I have dozens of times. I’ve had so many pretend x-rays that I would have developed pretend cancer by now. Now if I had my way, I might invent a new treatment for a previously incurable condition but patients would have to travel long distances and sell their houses and/or fundraise to pay the exorbitant fees involved. Post treatment and operation, patients would skip home (literally) after many weeks of rehabilitation singing my praises (literally singing) and grateful for a second chance at life, swearing that they will never complain about small problems like a stubbed toe or sprained ankle again (then turn around and stub their toe two weeks later and swear profusely about it).
Have you ever played families? I have dozens of times, and it’s actually a lot easier to script because I do it ‘day in and day out’. However, if I had my way (and from time- to- time I have had my way on this one), I might insist I play the role of the child because that’s a role I can have some fun with. I might complain that I am bored and beg to play the iPad, ignore requests to ‘get ready’ to go somewhere by being vague and continuing to play with my action figures or torment my brother until it ends in tears. Of course, my boys would get sick of that pretty quickly and insist I become the mother. Then they would give me a bit of karma in return and as ‘pretend mother’ I would decide that it was time to stop whatever pretend activity I was doing at the time and play a game of pretend cards with them and we’d all live happily ever after. Hey, it’s my pretend story OK.
Seriously though, if I need to teach my boys a particular social skill we might do a role play or rehearse it but as for ‘imaginative play as a therapy’ goes, those days are over for us and I could not be happier. The ‘Learn to Play’ resource was targeted at ages 5 years and below. Now, don’t even consider telling me (over a cup of tea for instance) about the existence of imaginative play resources for older age groups or I may just hyperventilate.
Woodard, C.R. and Van Reet, J. Object identification and imagination: An alternative to the meta-representational explanation of autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2011; 41:213-226