One of the most important jobs nursery nurses have is not just to teach them the knowledge and practical skills they’ll need in later life, but also to nurture their imagination. It’s the child’s imagination that will give them the curiosity they need if they’re going to start learning for themselves. After all, this is where the next generation of scientists, artists, inventors, musicians and architects start out. If you get it wrong, we could easily end up with a generation of bankers, and nobody wants that.

Come on, really? Is knowing how to pretend to be a fireman that important?

Aside from the crucial importance of encouraging our next generation of budding firemen (and it’s fire fighters now, thank you very much) pretend play is teaching our children a whole bunch of other skills as well. Firstly, it’s crucial for the development of their vocabulary and communication skills. Children often play out scenarios and characters that they’re familiar with. If you’ve got a group fo children together, then they all have different experiences to draw on. By playing together they’re teaching each other new words and ideas.

As well as giving them new words to play with, pretend play can also improve children’s planning and problem solving abilities. When a group of children decide what they’re going to play and who is going to play each part they demonstrate negotiation and problems solving skills of the kind it would be really nice to see in government occasionally. Then, as they play they have to come up with solutions to each imaginary problem they encounter.

Of course, aside from that there’s also the fact that imaginary play is great for children’s imaginations. It doesn’t take much to get kids going, they’re naturally creative- just give them an empty cardboard box and watch as it becomes a shop, fire engine, rocket ship and race car in turn.

Fine, so it’s important. What can I do to encourage it?

As mentioned kids will literally start pretend playing at the drop of a hat, but there are a few things you can do to get them going.

Firstly, you can give them loads of material to get started with. Picture books, field trips, even everyday life. If a child is showing an interest in a particular topic, encourage them to play creatively around that topic. Do they like dinosaurs? Show them picture books about the various species, or videos such as Walking With Dinosaurs. If possible, you could even take them to a museum where they can see skeletons of the real thing! All these things will give the child more ideas to play with.

As well as giving them material for their creations, it can also be useful to give them a few props, aside from the infinitely flexible cardboard box. With a tablecloth, some play food and a menu (which they can make themselves with some crayons and cardboard) you can build a restaurant. Of course, you may be conscripted as a customer of the new restaurant, in which case you can move things along by asking the child what the specials are and how much the different items on the menu cost.

Other ideas include a zoo, which can be put together with some stuffed toys and some building blocks to mark out the cages or a hospital, which can be put together with a toy doctor’s kit, a blanket and a pillow.

The most important thing to give the children in your class, however, is time. While pre-planned activities are great, be careful to make sure the children have enough room to discover their own games. Leave a group of kids together for any length of time and eventually they’ll create a let’s pretend game, and, no offence, it will probably be better than any you could think of.

Charles Reybreck is a freelance writer who blogs primarily about the jobs nursery nurses have.