Play is typically viewed as a break from serious learning. But to quote best-selling author and poet Diane Ackerman: “Play is [actually] our brain’s favorite way of learning.”

Creative play takes students from behind the desk and away from their screens. And it immerses them in a more natural way of learning that involves the whole body.

It’s also one of the best ways to foster social and emotional skills in students. Through guided play, students have opportunities to actively explore, manipulate and interact with their environment and others. 

They also build critical skills as they learn to solve problems, make decisions, work in teams and communicate with others. Fun-filled, hands-on activities, like those found in Social-Emotional Learning Activities for After-School and Summer Programs, can help you connect creative play to social-emotional development in your program.

In the activity below, students will create make-believe houses out of packing boxes and use them for creative play. By “playing house,” they’ll explore different household activities, like cooking and cleaning, as well as the different roles family members have in the home.


  • Several large cardboard packing boxes (e.g., large appliance boxes, moving-company boxes)
  • Box cutters or scissors
  • Colored markers or paints
  • Household items, like this play food set
  • Carpet samples
  • Fabric remnants or felt sheets
  • Posters or photos
  • Other decorative materials


  1. Use the packing boxes to simulate “cozy” houses by cutting out windows and doors. Have students decorate with posters, rugs, curtains and other details drawn on the interior and exterior walls.
  2. Brainstorm a list of the activities that go on in the students’ homes (the real ones). For example, cooking, eating, cleaning, watching TV, working on projects, playing alone and with others, caring for pets, homework, reading, etc. When you have a nice long list, post it where students can see it.
  3. Encourage students to dramatize these activities while playing in their cardboard houses.

To wrap up the activity, ask students the following questions:

  • What do you like best about playing house?
  • What roles have you taken while playing house?
  • What problems have you solved in your make-believe house?

While some form of learning will take place, the main purpose of the activity is for students to use their imagination and explore creativity through play.

Find this activity and others like it in After-School Explorations: Fun, Ready-to-Use Activities for Kids Ages 5-12.