Imaginative Play is the ability to create new alternatives from given information.
Imaginative play is an important skill that prepares children for reading because it teaches lets children that one object can be substituted for another, such as when an empty box is imagined to be a car. By doing this, children create symbols, which is critical to the understanding that letters are symbols for sounds and words.
The skill of Memory is required for Imaginative Play. Children use memory to imagine that something pretend is in front of them when it isn't actually there, such as pretending that they are in a forest when, in reality, they are in their bedrooms. They use memory to remember where the trees of the forest are so they don't walk into a tree.
One of the most important kinds of Imaginative Play is pretending to be someone else. This is a non-threatening way for children to experiment with new roles. They will often mimic what they see from their parents, and pretend to be Mommies and Daddies. This is how children prepare themselves for impending adulthood.
Your role in encouraging an active imagination is to let your child take control. Don't try to force a scenario, instead suggest one and see where your child goes with it. Open ended toys are best for imaginary play (toys that don't already have a name, job title, geared towards very specific play, etc.). Examples include wooden cars and trucks, puppets, stuffed animals, and old clothes. Don't be surprised if your child creates toys from common household items, including empty boxes or empty paper towel rolls.
Examples of Imaginative Play at various ages:
A toddler follows her mother around the house as Mom cleans. The toddler imitates Mom, and even asks for her own vacuum cleaner, broom, and dust pan so she can pretend to clean like Mom does.
A toddler puts on her mother's hat and scarf, and she pretends she is someone else. She prefers to use props she finds around the house, instead of the nurse's costume she got for Halloween because props let her be anyone she can conjure up with her imagination.
A preschooler plays with a group of small, plastic animals. She imagines great adventures or disasters, and has the animals act out these scenarios.
A preschooler holds a hair brush in one hand and a toothbrush in the other. The brushes are actively engaged in conversation, as she pretends that the hair brush is her and the toothbrush is a close friend.
A preschooler uses dolls and stuffed animals to act out daily routines. She has tea parties for them. Or, she has them fight and get in trouble.