As a child cubby building was one of my favourite occupations. I recall especially one summer holiday when I was about 8 or 9. Our days were entirely engrossed with lugging hammers, nails and small pieces of timber up a stand of Monterey Pines growing along the back border of a local high school where we were staying. As a landscape architect now I shudder at the damage we may have caused to the health of those poor trees, but remember fondly the joy of the experience. Small scratches and bruises were the norm but hour after hour we worked, created, built and finally inhabited this magical place – the tree house. Days were spent being the Famous Five on adventures using our vantage point to scour the neighbourhood for excitement.

Having worked a lot recently with children building cubbies from cardboard boxes as part of the Creative Cubby Project, I began to realise the sophistication of this kind of play. The dwelling (or cubby) is really only the catalyst for everything else that follows. All sorts of other structures, tools, rituals and games are whats really at the forefront of the ‘play’. This has led me to muse a little on children’s imaginative play and what this means to the environments they are in.

Do public playspaces provide as poorly for this as we think? And if yes, what can we do to improve opportunities for this type of play across all types of play environments.

Firstly lets talk about the value of imaginative play (and lets not forget that this type of play usually also incorporates all other types of play i.e. physical, social and cognitive). Imagination, creativity and make-believe encompasses most types of play in 0-5 years. Gleason and Geer (2016) state that Over the course of early childhood, exploration expands to include internal as well as the external world. A significant achievement, children’s ability to imagine objects, people, and situations not actually present opens a new dimension in cognition. This is the beginning of abstract thinking.

As children grow and develop they begin with simple associations such as using a toy phone as a real phone, but in a short space of time develop stipulations (i.e. declaring a block is a piece of cake) and transformations (i.e. pouring an imaginary drink and drinking it) on objects and actions not necessarily connected at all with the imagined scenario. This is where all play environments can offer up much in terms of value.

Gleason and Geer (2016) maintain that materials that can be gathered, ‘mixed or ‘cooked’ like play dough, sand, dirt, grasses and water, encourage play that uses children’s budding sensory and transformational skills. Yes its those ‘loose and flexible’ materials  and ‘outdoor spaces’ again!

In answer to the question previously posed about public playspaces, I feel that every play environment (unless completely rubberised and fixed) has valuable opportunities, and even with the aforementioned children will somehow find scope for imaginative play if encouraged and able. There are however good ways that these experiences can be embellished and opportunities expanded and they’re not complex. I have endeavoured to list just some of them below:

  • loose parts or materials (these don’t always have to be natural elements, just small things as this is all about imagination, however in public playspaces natural found elements are usually best)
  • flexible structures (moveable furniture, sheets, rugs and the like. in public playspaces this may be branches or logs
  • open ended fixed structures (these can be features or furniture with multiple uses, in public playspaces this can also include rocks and fixed logs, and landform as well
  • elevated spaces (vantage points like high decks or tops of mounds or trees)
  • enclosed / semi-enclosed spaces (equipment structures, cubbies or even small shrubs to create smaller observable spaces)
  • level change, patterns and textures in paving


An important point is don’t set the agenda too much for children either….let them guide the play’s direction. Many children will just do what they think adults want if experiences are too often pre-determined and structured.

So in a nutshell, just by considering the natural environment that a playspace sits in can really assist better opportunities for imaginative play. Saying that you tick the imaginative play box because your play equipment has a shop front counter and a toy telescope is not enough, its just a start. We can and should do better on this (local government and education in particular), given that most children of today don’t have a great deal of choice in choosing the environments they play in.

Imaginative Play for children is a critical tool in deciphering the code of human behaviour. The ability to transcend one’s own thoughts/feelings/desires so as to consider those of another person is a significant achievement in cognition that emerges over many years (Gleason and Geer 2016). Imagination allows children to ask questions about what it feels like to be someone or something else and begin to experiment with identity.

Finally I come back to my cubby building memory at the beginning of this piece. Fundamentally that summer alone provided opportunities for play that were wide and ever changing – all centred around one particular environment we could change and we could inhabit and imagine in different ways. A truly magical place for us day after day.

So get inside the mind of your inner child and remember what it was that once passionately captured your imagination. You’ll probably find it captures your child’s too!

Tracey Gleason and Becky Geer are academics in Psychology and Education at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, USA. They are both contributors for the upcoming publication ‘How to Grow A Playspace; Development and Design’ to be published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis, UK in 2017.