Family, Kids & Relationships

7 Parenting Hacks For Surviving Endless Hours of Toddlers’ Imagination Play

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We love playing with our kids, of course, and we know there needs to be a healthy amount of imaginative play, not just tech games, storytime, and sports with clear-cut rules to follow. But after a while, playing “pretend” can wear almost anybody out—especially during a quarantine, when we’re doing it all day long. It can quickly lead to parenting burnout, which studies have shown can have negative consequences for the whole family.

It takes a lot of mental stamina to consistently come up with games that require little more than an active imagination—and let’s face it, even if your kids are the ones inventing games, enthusiastically pretending to enjoy plastic restaurant food can get old pretty fast. But imaginative play has tons of benefits that make it worth it, including boosting language and social skills, and helping kids learn to solve problems and practice self-regulation. In a nutshell, when a child engages in pretend play, they’re experimenting with the social and emotional roles of life.

So, imagination play is super important—but not always super fun for mom and dad. We asked parents for tips on how they’re surviving endless hours of imaginative play with their kids, and their hacks are definitely worth sharing!

Focus on the set-up.

Often kids enjoy preparing for games as much as the game itself. Use that to your advantage—by challenging kids to do the set-up on their own, you can buy some peace and quiet before you get pulled into the fray. “The more elaborate the better,” one mom said regarding the games her kids invent. “So whatever game they suggest, I ask them to set it all up and THEN call me to play.” 

For example, if your little one wants to play dolls, they might be willing to do the set up—deciding where the dollhouse furniture goes, choosing dolls’ names and outfits, or dreaming up the storyline details—on their own, before you jump in. A child who wants to play “camping adventure” might happily spend 15 minutes turning some chairs and a blanket into a tent before you’re called to crawl inside. If they want to play “restaurant,” ask them to write a menu first with drawings of the food. Bonus: You can feel good about putting set-up on their plate, since independent play boosts confidence, creativity, and self esteem.

Keep it real.

Some parents reported that adding a practical or helpful element to pretend play made keeping at it for long stretches more manageable. “Things that got stuff done helped me,” one mom told us. “Grocery store = organize the cabinets as you return all the stuff. Restaurant = organize the kitchen drawers. Library = sort through and find new books to read” or donate later. Making chores fun is a great way to teach kids to help around the house, too.

Try stand-up. 

Part of the pressure parents feel about pretend play is coming up with ideas on the fly. Inspired by a mom who said, “I didn’t take improv classes for a reason—and now my teacher is 3,” why not flip the script and take advantage of our lack of preparedness? Lots of kids love having a turn in the spotlight, so try hosting an improv night where kids can make up funny stories and act them out. There are tons of ways to give everyone a prompt when it’s their turn to “take the stage,” even if you have shy kids. Try using old photos for inspiration or check out websites that offer great opening lines. This is a great one for family bonding—and as a bonus, they’ll entertain you for a while instead of the other way around.

Play doctor. 

One mom says she loves playing this with her kids because all she has to do is lie down, and we totally get it. “It buys me a lot of time lying on the bed!” she jokes. From deciding which treatments to recommend to using doctor language to pretending to give you a check-up, this is a fun activity that most kids like to play but requires little effort on your part. Need more ideas for games you can play from the couch when you’re out of energy?

  • Have a drum circle: Gather up some oatmeal canisters or plastic bowls, wooden spoons, and the like, and you’re good to go! Challenge kids to speed up and slow down, play louder and softer, and copy your rhythms.
  • Play a lifeguard or swim coach while your kiddos “swim” on the living room rug. Shark alerts, relay races, pillow rafts—keep changing it up from your comfortable spot on the “beach” to keep them engaged.
  • Direct a music video. Put on your kids’ favorite music and have them create a story or dance to go with it. All you have to do is call out “Action!” and press record.
  • Be a restaurant customer—the more complicated your orders are, the longer it will be before you have to come up with the next one! Be sure to remind them to serve up some food to their toys and stuffed animals, too.

Sneak in a different game.

Worn out on pretend play, but wouldn’t mind some movement? One mom shared her secret: “Sometimes I try to adjust the game to incorporate something else. My almost 4 year old likes to play ghostbusters. I named a playground ball Slimer and kind of turned into a soccer/ Dodge ball mash up.”

Send them on a secret mission. 

Another mom told us her husband sends the kids on quests, so he can be in on the game but still get other things done (or just take a break). “For example, police officer is a big theme in our imaginative play,” she shared, “so my husband will say, ‘Police officer S, there’s a parade happening in the living room and they need you to go make sure everyone stays on the sidewalk so the floats can get through.’” Then her kid will take off to the living room to clear the way for the parade before coming back for the next mission. The bonus here: Kids get a big confidence boost when they “complete” the quest.

Set limits.

If the constant pretend play is really driving you batty, decide what you’re willing to do—and what you’re not—and gently stick to your limits. It might change day to day based on your other stressors and mood, but even young kids can understand, “Mommy will talk like a pirate with you as much as you want today, but I can only sit in your ‘boat’ for 30 minutes. Then I’ll need to go make lunch.” Just giving yourself permission to set an end point can be a sanity saver.

Whatever you do, don’t beat yourself for not doing enough pretend play—or any other kind. Research has shown that it’s not the quantity or amount of time we spend with our kids, it’s the quality that counts most.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.