How to play the best traditional games

If you’re nostalgic for simple childhood pleasures, nurture your child’s imagination with spontaneous back-to-basics activities rather than expensive toys or a structured schedule of events. Try some of these more traditional play ideas

How to play the best traditional games

“Drawing fuels imagination and creativity from an early age,” says art educator Katrin Hall. Fill a shoebox with art materials, such as chunky pencils, crayons, chalks, wax pastels and short-handled paint brushes. Then stand back and allow your child’s creative spirit to flow. “Invest in a ream of paper that your child can access easily,” suggests Hall. “Draw and scribble alongside your child, but try to let him lead the way and be encouraging with your comments.”


Stories get inside your child’s head and will fire her imagination. Start by reading a favourite story out loud whilst your child acts it out. Provide props to help, such as a length of fabric to be used as a magic carpet or cloak, or a box that can double up as a castle or cave to hide in. For inspiration, take a trip to the Seven Stories Centre for Children’s Books, a stone’s throw from Newcastle’s Quayside. It’s the only space in the UK to celebrate British children’s literature and it’s sole aim is to spark the imagination of both parent and child.

Your child’s imagination can only run riot if his playtime isn’t stage-managed, structured or rule-bound. To encourage imaginary play, choose simple toys that can be whatever your child wants them to be, such as a set of building blocks. Pretend tea sets and cooking equipment, or a simple doll’s house full of miniature dolls and furniture are great starting points for creating new worlds and making imaginary friends.

The natural world never fails to stimulate the imagination with endless stuff to explore and discover. But don’t limit outside play to sunny days – embrace the weather in all its glory and agree that it is OK to get wet, muddy and frolic in the snow. On a day out, take a bag of simple props along with you – the natural landscape can be a brilliant backdrop for a host of exciting adventures. Pack a torch, some costumes, paper, pencils, food and drink. According to the Children’s Play Council, children benefit most from a variety of everyday nature that includes access to parks, gardens, city farms, village greens and rough ground. When on holiday, point out the natural wonders of the area and visit woodlands, beaches, hilltops and open grassland.

Fill a large wicker basket or trunk with costumes – anything that children can easily dive in and out of. Dressing up sparks the best make-believe games. Rather than ready-made costumes, choose things that can be adapted to fit your child’s play. Old hats, clompy high-heeled shoes, handbags, trailing dresses and net petticoats are all good. Complete the ultimate dressing-up box by adding some smaller accessories, such as an eye patch, magic wand, cardboard sword and feather boa.

Children flourish in kingdoms of their own making but, according to Roger Hart, New York City University’s Environmental Psychologist, dens are in danger of becoming extinct. Luckily, the Forestry Commission understands that dens unleash imaginations. Meanwhile, to build a den in your garden, you will need some dead wood and strong string. Bind the tops of three long sticks to form a tripod, then fill in the sides by weaving in long strips of willow, trailing ivy or honeysuckle. Den-building is easy inside, too – it’s amazing what you can build with a few chairs, a dining room table, large sheets and some clothes pegs.

An egg carton, cereal packet or washing-up liquid bottle can become something quite different when children discover that everyday objects can represent other things. Collect boxes, tubes and containers, feathers, glitter, sequins, brightly coloured cellophane, foil, corks, string, straws and PVA glue. “Making fun junk models together is a great thing to do as a family,” says Katrin Hall. But a word of warning. “It’s about encouraging the process and not necessarily about making a recognisable end product,” Hall advises.

Get up early and dance barefoot on a dewy lawn; stay up late and camp out under the stars; go on a ‘midnight’ walk with candles in jam jars; or pretend you’re in the grips of a power cut and spend the whole evening without electricity. It might sound a little eccentric, but being spontaneous and suggesting the unexpected is the
perfect way to boost flagging imaginations.

Does your child have a space to go where he can play undisturbed? Set aside a nice cosy place with cushions
and books. It could be in the kitchen, bedroom or lounge – anywhere, as long as it’s OK to make a mess. Children love elaborate pretend games and repetition, but if they always have to tidy up, it can be hard to pick up the same game they discarded the previous day.

Scaled-down theatres were all the rage in Victorian times, and today they still provide the perfect platform 
for children to act out their games of make-believe. To create your own, all you need is a shoebox and some card. Discard the lid and cut several backdrops from sturdy card. Use old photographs or pictures from magazines to set different scenes. Draw several characters, cut out and attach to a long strip of card. By cutting slits in the side of the shoebox, children can move their characters around on the ‘stage’. You can download some great toy theatre kits from

A walk in the park is a great time to gather stuff from nature’s bounty and be creative with it in new and different ways. “Children with lively imaginations might dream of flying off on a magic carpet created with their own treasured collection of leaves and seeds,” say Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield, authors of Nature’s Playground (Frances Lincoln). At home, acorns can be made into tiny figures with leaves, feathers and twigs; conkers can be turned into doll’s house furniture and catkins from a hazel tree can become caterpillars looking for a home.

When children play together they inspire each other and imaginative games are more likely to develop. Again, provide a few simple toys and leave them to their own devices rather than providing guidelines.


Music provides an escape from everyday life and lets the imagination soar. Give your child the opportunity to hear live music and talk to her about the stories behind each score. At home, show her a print of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and then play her the song by Don McLean. You could also try acting out the different parts in Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf or dance madly to Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight Of The Bumblebee. Encourage your child to create her own music, too. Recording her singing on a tape recorder and playing it back will provide hours of fun.