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During a recent play date, my 5-year-old son told me he and his friend watched each other play computer games. Is this really playing?

A: Creative or imaginative play is generally the reference parents are looking for when they express concerns about time in front of a computer. Building forts, playing dress up, and dreaming up fantasy worlds with other children are examples of imaginative play activities that provide a critical part in child development.

Play activities that include technology are often based on scripted behaviors as opposed to child-directed, unstructured play. Experts know that the latter allows children to naturally develop healthy behaviors like self-control, problem-solving, social skills, and sharing.

So how can parents encourage imaginative play in the shadow of flashy digital devices? 

Spruce up creative options.  Add a few new items to your current imaginative play supplies: a holiday garland for the dress-up box, empty cereal boxes or kitchen utensils for your play kitchen, make homemade craft dough for sculpting. Inexpensive updates can go a long way in keeping kids interested.

Designate imagination days.  Instead of focusing efforts on a specifically tech-free day, promote unplugged time as imaginative play days. For instance, try a Silly Saturday (where everyone wears two different socks or dances to silly music). Take tablets and video game controllers and put them in a silly place – in mom’s pillowcase – until Silly Saturday is through.

Make it a family affair.  Kick off creative play by suggesting the whole family make a fort together or set up an obstacle course in the backyard. Often, children will take your initial direction and then be happy to continue playing on their own.

Find new resources.  Children’s museums or park and rec centers offer many opportunities for unstructured play. Toy companies like CP Toys ( or Fat Brain Toys ( offer puzzles, Erector sets, science projects, and more.

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