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The Meaning of Play—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My three-year-old and five-year-old have sustained periods when they actually play well together with make-believe.

I try not to interrupt, but stay close by in case I’m needed to settle conflict, but mostly I just like to eavesdrop. Usually the little one goes along with whatever scenes and roles the older one sets up. My question is, how seriously should I take it when the themes involve disasters and villains?


Dear A/R,

Dramatic play is a wonderful tool for young children to use. Through roles and scenarios children try to make sense of the world and practice for their future roles in it.

Family Roles

The first pretend play is usually that of a caregiver – to a doll, stuffed animal, or a willing playmate. If you are listening in you’re likely to hear echoes of your own soothing words and lullabies.

The caregiver role, whether parent or zookeeper, is one that a child has observed as the recipient of care, and it also sets an example for a role he may play in his real-life future. You’re getting an assessment of how your own caregiving, and that of the child’s other caregivers, is perceived. If a caregiver is acting villainously, that’s a red flag. You can step into the pretend play – in a pretend role, of course – to help the plot move toward a happy ending. Children need reassurance that vulnerable children and animals will always be taken care of.

Once he is past his own babyhood, a child is often drawn to return to the role of a helpless and demanding infant. Why? One guess is that past toddlerhood, a child is aware that babyhood is behind him. This is a major psychological milestone. Self-aware of his own forward development, he desires to hold on to a role that he understands. Grown-ups often talk about being a “Big Boy” or “Big Girl” which holds responsibilities that may seem unattainable. Such as keeping one’s pants dry. Or not getting upset when a beloved parent has to work. Or sharing. Babies have it easier. So, in pretend play at least, he gets a reprieve from this sometimes stressful challenge.

When things go wrong during a family scene in make-believe play – an angry parent, a lost baby, an earthquake – it may indicate the actors are aware that things can go wrong in real life. Make sure that the scene ends with good forces rising to the occasion so the babies or animals feel safe again. If the pretend caregiver is not acting heroically, you should step in to help them steer things in a reassuring direction.

Bad Guys

By age four, a child is clear on the concepts of right and wrong, winning and losing, safety and danger. That is not to say that his everyday actions are always socially approved and self-protective. Some of the drama of his play is working through conflicts in himself about always doing the right thing. He uses superheroes and supervillains to represent the positive and negative forces in himself. Be on the watch for your older child taking on a pretend role just to act out anger or jealousy toward the younger siblings. It’s easy to lose sight of the difference between reality and fantasy when in the midst of this play, so you may need to guide the players back to civil behavior if emotions are escalating. Giants, wizards, dragons, and other evil characters may also represent the child’s relationship with the “evil” side of you when you’re having a bad day. Too many of these overly dramatic scenes might indicate that your children need some positive individual attention from you, or that you need some stress relief yourself.

Normal fantasy play may include burning buildings, car wrecks, tornadoes (or sharknados if the children have heard of them), and quite possibly a pandemic. As long as your children emerge whole and healthy at the end, this is good work in nurturing hopefulness, developing problem solving skills, and building a healthy sense of resilience.

Learning from Play

Expect there to be some high drama pitting good guys against bad guys when children play. Often the bad guys are imagined. This allows two children to work together to overcome the troubles posed by the invisible, but ever-present, evil in ourselves and in the world.

Children learn so much about themselves, their relationships, and their future ability to handle strife when they engage in pretend play. If you pay attention, you can learn about your children, too.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist  and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.

Register for upcoming parenting workshops on Zoom:
April 3 “The Skin You Live In – Antiracism as a Family”
April 6 “I Had it First! – Teaching Conflict Resolution”

Read more of her Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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