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Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein
Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Reading for Imaginative Play

Reading stimulates pretend play and develops imagination.

Father reading to children

Father reading to children

All the times you read Goodnight Moon or Where the Wild Things Are, all those hours you and your children spent together with Winnie the Pooh, Charlie and his chocolate factory, and Jim Hawkins in search of Treasure Island--were they worth it? In our last post we argued that children immersed in books from an early age can become good readers. And good readers, recent research tells us, do better in school. But that's not the only reason to make a big deal out of books. Reading to our children--and encouraging them to read on their own--stimulates imaginative play.

In a 2007 report, To Read or Not To Read, the National Endowment for the Arts presented data correlating the number of books in a home with test scores for a variety of subjects. For civics, history, science and math, 12th-graders with more books in the home did better academically. The same strong relationship between reading and math at the middle school level is borne out in test scores from other western nations as well. Reading builds cognitive muscle in the classroom.

Reading also builds imaginative chops in play. And when it comes to cognitive development in early and middle childhood, that play can be every bit as important as classroom work. In fact, as master teacher Vivian Gussin Paley puts it, play is "a child's work" (Paley, 2004). In play, the growing child learns many things: how to manipulate physical objects, how to understand the mind behind behavior, how to share experience with others, how to construct knowledge of the world.

That's a tall order for a young child. But parents can do much to help that ‘work' along. Psychologists and child care specialists suggest the following:
• Give children a PLACE in the home for pretend play. Physically, this place might be a den, a bedroom or the dining room table before and after meals. But it is also a psychological SPACE. Turn off the television and other electronic distractions.
• Set aside uninterrupted TIME for children to indulge in pretend play of their own making.
• Provide a variety of MATERIALS for playing and pretending with, such as crayons, paper, magazines to cut up, craft supplies. Include toys that can be used in a variety of ways and for different purposes, like building blocks, dress-up clothes or puppets.
• Allow children a certain amount of autonomy or PRIVACY to utilize provided space, time and materials as they wish. Parents may find the need to role model activities to get young children going, but the less involved they are in actual play, the more benefit that play has for the child.
• Let children know you VALUE and SUPPORT their pretend play. Put pictures up on the refrigerator, watch puppet shows, let the block castle set up in the living room stay standing for as long as possible.

To these rules of thumb, let's add one more. Parents can do much to nurture rich imaginative play by READING to their children and providing them with BOOKS that provoke their curiosity and provide fodder for their pretend play.

There are many kinds of play stimuli--seminal experiences, vivid stories heard and seen on the playground or in the classroom, adventures simulated on television or in computer games--we're not going to argue otherwise. But in our opinion books can have the greater impact on the developing imagination. How's that?

For some time now we have been researching the childhood play of adults at work in a variety of disciplines. In describing their games and daydreams, interests and hobbies, many have told us of the books that grabbed their attention when they were young. Even after the book was closed, the story had to go on and did--at play with other kids or in private daydreams. Some individuals recall one special book that set off weeks and months of play; some recall a series of seminal books, like the MacArthur Fellow who built her childhood play on the "book du jour," her voracious appetite for written story leading to never-ending and ever-changing make-believe.

Children playing pirates

Children playing pirates

Why should books acquire such personal importance that they and the play they inspire remain vividly present so many years later? Unlike stories imbibed in other ways--from tv, movies, computer games--the written text requires something extra of us. With only words as triggers, we and our children, too, must re-imagine sights, sounds, tastes, feelings, etc, that make up the narrative. The imaginative simulation that goes on in the head--the look of two sea-faring characters, for instance; the way she shimmies up the mast; the way he shouts ‘ahoy'--all that is composed with bits and pieces from the child's memory bank of lived and learned experience. Imaginative response to written or spoken story reflects what the child blends together in novel, idiosyncratic and personally meaningful ways.

Interestingly enough, it has also been suggested that written or spoken stories elicit more of this novel imaginative response than television or other visual media, not because books are necessarily more creatively stimulating, but because "they are remembered less well" (Singer & Singer, 2005, 63). In contrast to books, highly visual media such as television, movies and computer games project an aggressive image stream of visual pictures and animations that are difficult to forget and thus difficult to revise or reinvent in later play (Norman, 1993, 245; Singer & Singer, 2005, 63). This is no doubt why so many people with active imaginations would rather not see the movie based on a favorite book. The movie characters, the place, the action "look" all wrong; they do not match the original vision in the reader's head; and they may end up erasing that original and personal vision.

Bemelmans' Madeline

Bemelmans' Madeline

When it comes to stimulating the imagination, books are a big deal. In fact, we're willing to bet that just about everyone has a special book or two in their background. Michele still remembers a day when she was maybe four or five, begging her mother to read Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline just one more time. Something about the crack in the ceiling that had the "habit of looking like a rabbit" has stuck with her all these years. What's also stuck is the playful habit of looking for other rabbits and other objects in ceiling cracks, wood paneling and moiré curtains. And Bob has based a lot of play over the years on Tolkien's Middle Earth saga, first read to him by his mother and subsequently read many times over by himself.

What's the seminal book in your childhood?

© 2010 Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein


Norman, Donald. 1993. Things That Make Us Smart, Defending Human attributes in the Age of the Machine. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Paley, Vivian Gussin. 2004. A Child's Work, the Importance of Fantasy Play. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Singer, Dorothy & Singer, Jerome. 2005. Imagination and Play in the Electronic Age. Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press.

To Read or Not To Read, A Question of National Consequence. National Endowment for the Arts, Research Report #47, November 2007. Available @


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Children playing pirates @

About the Author
Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are co-authors of Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People.

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