Examples of Creative Play Activities: Simple Low Cost Ways to Engage Your Child

What is Creative Play?

Creative play can take the shape of a wide range of activities from arts & crafts, drama, dress up, building, singing or dancing to name a few.  The main ingredients in creative play are imagination and expression.

In this post we’ll talk about the importance of creative play and how it relates to STEM, and we’ll discuss our favorite examples of creative play activities that our kids love. Let’s explore!

Creative Play - boys wearing goggle hats in a cardboard box

<If you’re in a hurry and want to skip right to the creative play, click to skip to the activities.>

How does Creative Play Relate to STEM and STEAM?

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Bobbi Wegner from a 2017 interview with Parents magazine, “A child who is used to thinking creatively can more easily problem-solve than a child who follows a rigid protocol when searching for a solution to a problem.  Creative thinking serves them far beyond their childhood years.”

STEM has a focus on problem solving skills and real world application.  A child that learns to think creatively, especially in their formative years, is for thinking some of the important, “What If?” questions that lead to discovery.

“A child who is used to thinking creatively can more easily problem-solve than a child who follows a rigid protocol when searching for a solution to a problem.”

Dr Bobbi Wegner

The Importance of Creative Play

Aptly stated by Kenneth R. Ginsburg  in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children. Despite the benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children.” 

Compressed schedules, extracurricular activities, homework; kids lives can get as time crunched as adults.  At some point, kids need time to, well, just be kids.  Creativity often gets squeezed out, and imagination can be left to atrophy.  Like a muscle, creativity and imagination get stronger when used regularly.

There is no wrong answer in creative play.  Kids can take chances.  Kids can be themselves, and it’s okay to be a little silly if that’s where their ideas take them.

Having the time and freedom for play is so integral to child development that the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes, “the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.”

Kids need to be allowed to be kids. They need the freedom, and the support, to explore, discover and learn. 

Examples of Creative Play Activities

The best thing about creative play?  Since the key ingredient is imagination, it doesn’t have to break the budget.  Kids can certainly play with their toys, though you can also do quite a bit with standard household items and a DIY mindset.

Our kids love a good paper towel or toilet paper tube. 

Related Post: 11 Simple STEM Activities with Toilet Paper Rolls

Spyglass or binoculars

If you give a kid a tube, their natural curiosity will be to look through it.  A paper towel roll makes a great spyglass.  If you make a cut in the end of the roll, you can stack several of them together for an extra long telescope. Two toilet paper rolls glued or taped together makes a great set of play binoculars. 

We’ve gone on many a stuffed animal safari observing through our pretend optics. Playing I-Spy while looking though our pretend binoculars is fun and feels more like a scavenger hunt.

This is a great exercise to develop your child’s observational skills, as it forces them to notice only what they can see through the tube.

Swords or Magic Wands

In the hands of a child, a simple paper towel tube can become a sword or a lightsaber, so look out!  We’ve had some epic lightsaber duels (BYO Sounds Effects.)  The best part?  If someone actually does get whacked, it doesn’t hurt!

If Harry Potter and the world of wizards is more your child’s thing (or yours), paper towel rolls make great play wands. Have fun making up nonsense words as you cast imaginary spells.  We have one for the end of our playtime that makes the kids clean up.  It actually works (sometimes.)

Tube City – Creative Play with Cardboard Tubes

I spent many mornings setting up an array or tubes before anyone else in our house got up.  The kids were excited to see all the tubes arranged like a city, and even more excited to knock everything down.  Then they would set up the city and have fun knocking it down again.

Creative Play with Cardboard Tubes
An assortment of paper towel and toilet paper tubes can provide tons of fun

We’ll sometimes take larger tubes and cut them down to give our Tube City buildings a variety of heights.  In addition to paper towels and toilet paper rolls, the tubes from wrapping paper make an excellent addition.

The kids need to think spatially as to where to place the tubes for different layouts.  They tune up their fine motor skills getting the tubes in place without knocking everything over before it’s time. 

They take turns pretending to be KidZilla, or may have one of their toy dinosaurs go on a rampage.

Fun with Cardboard Boxes

Like the cliché, buy the kid an expensive toy and they spend hours playing with the box instead.  It’s not like our kids don’t have plenty of toys to choose from, though they sometimes prefer to use their imagination and create their own adventures. And we encourage them using their imagination! 

Planes, Trains, and Spaceships?!

Kids love to climb into boxes.

boy playing in cardboard box with grover
Grover is My Co-Pilot

A simple box in our house can be a boat floating on a river, a plane flying through the skies (sometimes with a bit of parental help to zoom the box around the room), or a rocket blasting into space.  Often it’s the same box that provides all of these adventures.

Build a town out of boxes

If you collect a bunch of different size boxes and arrange them on the floor, you can build a town that the kids can drive cars through.  We experiment with different layouts and talk about how easy or hard it is to drive the cars around the buildings. This sparks conversations about why some roads we drive on are windy and why some cities are laid out like a grid, or why some cities have narrow roads and some are more spacious.

Costumes from Cardboard

You can cut armholes in a large box that your child can wear.  Smaller boxes can be altered for hats or helmets.  Our son loves to transform the round cardboard from a frozen pizza into a shield.

young boy in carboard and foil robot costume

Kids will need to think about where to place the holes to fit their arms and head through.  How big do the holes need to be? 

Kids can paint or draw on the boxes or glue on pieces of construction paper to transform a box into a masterpiece. Covering a box with aluminum foil makes a great robot or knight. 

Speaking of costumes:

Costumes and Dress Up in Creative Play

Our kids’ Halloween costumes do duty year around.

We have a bin of masks, capes, helmets etc. that our kids can dive into.  They can be superheroes, firemen, construction workers, or race car drivers.  Sometimes they try to stack the hats and be everything at once, and that’s all part of the fun.

There was the month our 2 year old was a stormtrooper. (Or as he pronounces it, “stormpooper’, which is oddly appropriate.) 

He would wear the mask at home most of the time except at the dinner table, since he discovered stormtroopers need to remove their helmets to eat (after a few unsuccessful attempts to shove a slice of pizza into the mask.)

Pillow and Blanket Forts

A simple blanket draped between the couch and coffee table can make a great fort or cave.  Several chairs can do the trick as well as a framework for a blanket fort.

Got a pillow?  It makes a great door for the fortress.  Got a bunch of pillows?  Even better. Build a pillow palace, or the Great Wall of Pillows.  Don’t worry if it collapses or gets jumped on, it’s soft and fluffy.

The Craft Bin

We keep a craft box full of random supplies.  It’s stocked with the standards of paper, glue, plastic scissors, crayons, yarn, and makers.  We also have things like popsicle sticks, straws, pipe cleaners, cloth scraps, googly eyes, toilet paper tubes, etc.

The kids have free reign to create whatever they feel like, and we’re always ready for spontaneous and creative craft activities.

Creative Play for Kids (and Adults)

Giving the kids choices and allowing them to unleash their imagination, they seem to become more creative.  It’s like working out or flexing a muscle.  The more you do it, the easier and more natural it becomes. 

Sometimes we like to structure creative play activities, like giving the kids particular items or toys to use. Other times, it’s better to give them the freedom to choose what they want to play with and just see where their imagination takes them.

It’s interesting (and often entertaining) to see what kids come up with.  Their creative play choices frequently lead to some interesting conversations as to why they chose a certain topic or character or where they heard about different situations or scenarios.  It gives some perspective into what they are thinking, and helps us better understand our children.

Most of all: Creative play is FUN (for both children and adults.)

Looking for some STEM Projects and Activities? Check out our STEM Challenges.


Howie Miller is as dedicated to fatherhood as he is to life long learning. Musician, Photographer, Educator, Consultant, Entrepreneur, Blogger, and founder of STEMtropolis, where you can share his adventures in STEM and STEAM with his family.

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