I've been reading up on the many benefits of free, imaginative play, especially now that my daughter has entered the world of doll houses, stuffed animals with personalities and names, and small farmhouse figurines. It is amazing to watch her cradle a stuffed kitty like a baby doll, rocking it back and forth, before placing it in her doll stroller for a "walk" to go "shopping". (Sidenote: Dad always asks how she knows the word "shopping" so well, but I plead ignorance. My case wasn't helped when she was out with Dad one day and pointed to the GAP clothing store and noted "Gap!")
In particular, I like the approach taken by Kim John Payne on his "Simplicity Parenting" blog www.simplicityparenting.com/blog. He details how play is a critical component of childhood, and the cognitive growth that comes from creating your own play is being slowly eroded by fast-paced life in our society today. Toys, gadgets, television, and technology have gotten in the way of the creativity that comes from those moments of "I'm bored... what can I do?"
From a communication perspective, imaginary play is an important stage in overall development. When a child leaves a cause-effect world and begins to create on their own, a major milestone has been reached. The cardboard box becomes a race car, the doll becomes a baby, and the animals are no longer just placed in the farmhouse, they now are fighting for food or escaping from the corral.
Try this at home: Take a look around your play space. Are the toys in your child's reach ones they can create with? Are they simple enough to become other things? A blanket can be a superhero cape, or a tablecloth for a tea party, but a truck that lights up and rumbles will pretty much stay a truck that lights up and rumbles. Make sure they have some toys that don't "do everything" for them. That way, they can create whatever action or story they can imagine.
If your child is struggling to enter the world of pretend play, it will be even more critical that you reduce or eliminate the things that "do everything". This includes the t.v., video games, and toys with batteries. Then, help guide them into pretend play. Start with routines they've seen you do at home: eating, bathing, getting dressed, etc. Get out the toy dishes and fix a meal for the stuffed animals, rock and clothe the favorite doll, roll the toy pigs in mud and help give them a bath (magic marker works well as "mud".) And don't forget to give them time to respond or move the play. Remember that "wait time" of 5 seconds... a lot can happen!