12 Best Picture Books for Preschool Children to Stimulate Their Imaginations and Promote Dramatic Play

Updated on December 18, 2017
letstalkabouteduc profile image

With two teen sons, I've done my fair share of nagging. As I grew older and wiser, though, I realized it was ineffective and even harmful.

Not all children's books are made equal. Choose ones that will stay with your youngster, make an impression, and stimulate their imagination.
Not all children's books are made equal. Choose ones that will stay with your youngster, make an impression, and stimulate their imagination. | Source

When my teenage sons were little, our house was the place for neighborhoods kids to hang out and play. The boys would pull the sheets off our beds and place them over tables and chairs to make forts, mazes, haunted houses, and caves. They'd grab flashlights and pretend they were explorers searching for gold, bats, and hieroglyphics. I just stood back and watched as their imaginations took them to places around the globe and adventures that thrilled their souls. I had snacks at the ready but besides that my duties were minimal.

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.

— Albert Einstein

Fast forward 20 years and children no longer know how to play and use their imaginations. I get disturbed and disheartened every time my neighbor's two little girls, ages 6 and 4, drop by for a visit and I try to entice them with my closet-full of dress-up clothes, puppets, dinosaurs, and blocks from my days teaching kindergarten. Those toys seem foreign and old-fashioned to them, requiring too much effort as opposed to the entertainment that's spoon-fed to them through an iPad, smart phone, and computer. Their parents have them over-programmed with structured activities from the time they wake up until they fall asleep – school, soccer, tutoring, violin lessons, Spanish, and ballet. They never have time to feel bored, explore their creativity, and develop initiative.

Researchers have tracked a decline in children's creativity over the past 50 years, attributing it to the rise of technology and the decrease in play. Sadly, many parents (such as my neighbors) don't seem alarmed by this in the least. They're too impressed with this new generation's advanced tech skills to see the harmful effects. They've bought into the belief that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is the key to their children's success in life and imagination is downright trivial. But are they correct?

Mark Cuban, the billionaire investor, recently discounted the clamor about STEM, arguing that creative thinking is the skill needed in the future. He said, "I personally think there's going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than for programming majors and maybe even engineering." Going against popular opinion, he believes degrees such as English, philosophy, and foreign languages will become the most valuable in years to come. Perhaps, it takes a billionaire (and television star) to articulate what scholars in early childhood education have said for years: imagination counts!

It takes knowledgeable parents with strong convictions to promote their kid's creativity while ignoring STEM hysteria. Reading is one of the easiest and best ways moms and dads can stimulate their youngster's imagination and boost dramatic play. Not all books do that, though, but these 12 titles will:

Beware of minimizing imagination by equating it to a game of pretend. Every single creation in existence, from the Great Wall of China to the first flight to the moon, was a byproduct of imagination.

The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister stimulates dramatic play by letting kids pretend their fish and other sea creatures.
The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister stimulates dramatic play by letting kids pretend their fish and other sea creatures. | Source

1.The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister

A great children's book opens up new worlds for kids to explore with their imaginations, and that's exactly what The Rainbow Fish does. Its story is perfectly suited for today's superficial society as it tells about a fish who defines himself by his good looks. He believes his worth is based solely on his beautiful shiny scales that are the envy of his fish friends. Unwilling to share his scales with those who have less, he leads a lonely, isolated existence until a wise octopus teaches him the value of sharing and letting go of vanity. Young children will instantly relate to this story because they've all had experiences with someone who's been stingy or have been stingy themselves.

2. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

This beloved classic celebrates the wild imagination of a boy named Max who travels to a land of monsters and becomes king of them all. It won the Caldecott Medal for Most Distinguished Picture Book of the Year in 1964 and deservedly so. It's stood the test of time by entertaining generations of children. Not only does the tale promote creative thought, it empowers kids to be in charge of their imaginations – where they want to travel, who they want to see, and how they want to act.

3. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

This is another classic children's book and winner of a Caldecott award in 1970. Sylvester Duncan is a donkey who finds a magic pebble that grants wishes. When a ferocious lion frightens him, he wishes he was a rock. Sadly, when the lion leaves, Sylvester is unable to turn back into a donkey. This beautifully-crafted tale illustrates the bond between parents and children and lets readers inhabit a charming world where pigs are police officers, chickens are neighbors, and donkeys are a loving family.

4. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

This gentle story returns us to an innocent time when our imaginations were so strong that stuffed animals became real. It tells about a boy who adores his toy bunny so much that he makes it come alive. Youngsters will be charmed by this magical tale and adults will reach back in time to recall their own beloved stuffed friends.

4. Lovable Lyle by Bernard Waber

No book from my childhood stimulated more dramatic play than Lovable Lyle (and the other Lyle stories in the series). It tells the captivating tale of a friendly crocodile who lives in the big city with the Primm family. Everybody in the community adores the courteous crocodile except for the new neighbors. Children will feel an immediate allegiance with Lyle who experiences discrimination just because he's different.

5. The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle

This book not only lets kids imagine what it's like to fly about like a ladybug, landing on leaves and eating aphids, but it gets them in touch with difficult emotions. The main character is an unlikely protagonist – a disgruntled ladybug who doesn't like to share and wants to pick a fight with everyone it meets. What child can't relate to this insect who's in a bad mood and just needs a little kindness and understanding?

Kids love to learn about ladybugs and their diet of aphids, their cover and flight wings, and their spots.
Kids love to learn about ladybugs and their diet of aphids, their cover and flight wings, and their spots. | Source

6. The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper

No book sparked more dramatic play in my two sons than this one. Each of them had a keen interest in trains and this story brought it to new heights. They'd spend hours pretending to be that feisty little engine who refused to give up. The lesson of the tale – to think positively (“I think I can. I think I can.”) – came up time and time again during their childhoods. It gave them the persistence to succeed in many endeavors.

7. Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel

Written in 1968, this book is remembered fondly by many adults who now read it to their children or even their grandchildren. I loved it as a kid because it took me to far-away China where their culture seemed so exotic. It re-tells a folktale that explains how first-born sons were given long names to honor them. This practice changed, however, when it almost cost a young boy his life. Although it's been 48 years since I first heard this book in preschool, I still remember how it enchanted me and inspired hours of dramatic play with my siblings and a ladder.

8. Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina

This classic book is another you may remember fondly from childhood. Published in 1940, it tells the humorous tale of a peddler who falls asleep under a tree. When he awakes, he's shocked to discover all the caps he sells are missing. He looks up into the branches and sees a pack of mischievous monkeys, each wearing a cap on its head! What follows next is a game of monkey-see-monkey-do that will bring a smile to your child's face. My sons would ask me to read this story often to them when they were little. Then they'd go into our backyard and play monkeys in their tree fort for hours.

9. Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett

Jan Brett, the beloved author and illustrator of many outstanding children's books, puts her unique twist on the classic story of the gingerbread boy. Her detailed drawings are true masterpieces. You and your child can sit and admire each page, commenting joyfully on all that's depicted. As in the original telling, the gingerbread baby is a rascal who jumps out of the oven and is chased by a cat, a dog, goats, kids, grownups, and a pig. But unlike the original, the gingerbread baby doesn't get gobbled up by a sly fox. Instead Brett has a happier and more magical ending in store that's sure to spark your child's imagination and warm her heart.

Children can explore their imagination and discover themselves through this simple but compelling book.
Children can explore their imagination and discover themselves through this simple but compelling book. | Source

10. Quick as a Cricket by Audrey Wood

No book celebrates a child's unbridled imagination better than this one. The protagonist looks at the world around him and sees himself reflected in all its marvelous creatures. He observes: “I'm as quick as a cricket...I'm as brave as a tiger...I'm as busy as a bee.” By comparing himself to these animals, he discovers what's truly special about himself.

11. Saturday Night at the Dinosaur Stomp by Carol Diggory Shields

Nothing gets a child's imagination going more than a book about dinosaurs. With its big, bold illustrations and fun, bouncy rhyme, this is an especially good one. It will get your youngster wondering what it was like to be living during prehistoric times in the company of plesiosaurus, pterodactyl, and maiasaur. I read it to my sons in the evenings before bath time. Then they spend hours in the tub playing with their dinosaur friends.

12. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jacks Keats

Another Caldecott Award Winner, this book explores a boy's adventures on a snowy day. The protagonist, Peter, goes outside by himself and pretends to be a mountain-climber, ascending a mound of snow. With just his imagination, he's able to have a wonderful day in nature by himself.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 McKenna Meyers


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      • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

        McKenna Meyers 

        12 months ago from Bend, OR

        Einstein also famously said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Unfortunately, we've moved away from that in early childhood education, but I'm sure we'll return to it again. Thanks for reading.

      • sybol profile image


        12 months ago

        I took note of the Einstein quote. It really opened my mind. I know that imagination is vital to learning and that quote brought it home.

      • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

        McKenna Meyers 

        16 months ago from Bend, OR

        So true. When I taught kindergarten 20 years ago, I'd marvel at the kids' imaginations and thought how sad it is that we lose it as we age. Now I'm around children who have no imagination at all and don't even know how to play. They expect me to entertain them every second or give into their demands for technology. When I drive around family neighborhoods on a sunny day, I'm shocked to see no kids outside biking, skating, or playing. They're all inside with their devices. I grade research papers written by middle school students -- kids who've grown up using iPads at home and at school. What's most glaring is how lazy they are. They try to answer the questions without reading the sources as if reading is too much effort. Many parents foolishly think their kids are more intelligent because they're tech savvy. They're in for a rude awakening! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • Venkatachari M profile image

        Venkatachari M 

        16 months ago from Hyderabad, India

        A great, timely message through this article. It's true that children are losing their innate abilities with the ever growing technology. They are becoming like robots and machines with no taste of real happiness.


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