Imagination and unstructured playtime
Image: Mehdinom / CC BY-SA 3.0

A child maneuvering toy cars down an imaginary highway in his backyard appears to be doing little other than having a good time. However, there could be more to the activity than meets the adult eye. Research shows that imagination and unstructured playtime are important to a child’s intellectual development.

Often, it’s a favorite toy that helps spark creativity and occasionally much more. It was his son’s interaction with stuffed animals, for example, that inspired author A.A. Milne to create Winnie-the-Pooh.

Imagination and unstructured playtime
Image: Charly W. Karl / CC BY-ND 2.0

“Toys have played a significant role in almost everyone’s life,” says Cathy Miller, a former foster mother and founder of You 2 Can Do D.R. Inc. “We all have memories of playing with a special toy when we were children. Maybe we slept with a stuffed animal that was worn from use. Perhaps we created elaborate battles in the family room with a platoon of plastic soldiers.”

The California-based Child Development Institute reports that the best toys inspire imagination and adds that all toys have some educational benefits. The institute suggests ways parents can use toys to promote learning throughout the child’s development:


Toys for babies should be both safe and stimulating. They love rattles and toys that make music. Toys with contrasting colors also fascinate them. Objects such as blocks help them build motor skills and hand-eye coordination.


Shape sorters are great for toddlers, the institute suggests. They teach how to match similar items and provide parents the opportunity to teach their children the names of shapes.

Preschool and school-aged children

As children reach preschool age, toys can help them learn letters, numbers, and language skills. The toys that encourage those skills range from basic alphabet puzzles to high-tech electronic games.

Imagination and unstructured playtime
Image: Wes Schaeffer / CC BY 2.0

As many parents became obsessed with flash cards and learning accomplishments, and children became busier with organized activities, such as youth sports, scouting, and dance lessons, the worry grew that children were too busy to indulge in free-spirited imagination and unstructured playtime.

But a study by Case Western Reserve University psychologists revealed that such worries may have been overblown.

The psychologists analyzed two decades worth of play studies and found that children’s use of imagination in play actually had increased over time. Their results also indicated that children express fewer negative feelings about play than children did years ago.

Miller is in the camp of those who say: “Just let the kids play.”

“Children sometimes just need to be children,” says Miller. And that’s the moment when imagination — and unplanned learning — can take over.

Imagination and unstructured playtime
Image: / CC BY 2.0

Cathy Miller, a former foster mother, serves as national spokeswoman for the UglySnuglies  line of educational stuffed animals. She has more than 25 years experience in marketing and sales. Her experience with direct response marketing inspired her to launch You 2 Can Do D.R. Inc. Miller attended Brigham Young University and is a Six Sigma graduate.