Dear Dr. Debbie,
My 2-year-old has such an active imagination. Since she could walk, she picks up anything that is rectangular and fits in her hand, holds it to her ear and says, “Hello?” Lately she says, “Hello, Daddy” and goes on to tell him what she’s doing.
When she plays by herself, dolls and stuffed animals come to life and have conversations with each other. I hardly remember pretend play as a two-year-old but know that this is how my friends and I, and on rare occasions, my sister and I, spent countless hours for many years of childhood.
I love it when my daughter includes me in her play, serving me pretend food (which she blows when it’s “too hot”) and treating me as the patient when she’s the doctor.
She puts on a cape to pretend she’s Supergirl, and tells me she flying when I push her on the swing.
Is there any harm in encouraging pretend play?
In the Act
Don’t miss last week’s column Teaching children tolerance for different religions — Good Parenting
Dear In the Act,
No harm at all, in fact imaginative play is the hallmark of childhood. It serves many purposes for the child, and pretending can be a readily accessible behavior management tool for grownups to use.
I’ll Be the Mommy
Pretend play allows a child to test out what she knows. Imitating the care she has received in being fed, dressed, tucked in etc., a toddler gets to experience the other side of nurturing. You can encourage her best caregiving — coaching her to be gentle, helping with a doll’s difficult clothing — as reinforcement of the important lessons your daughter has learned from her own caregivers. This, by the way, is the best time in life for her to learn about caregiving.
Pretend play also helps her to work through strong emotions, such as trepidation at the doctor’s office. When you take on the role of patient, you can model how to be helpful and cooperative for the doctor.
At play, a child creates problems to solve. All of a sudden, she has company for dinner and the food needs to be cooked and the dishes need to be set out. She has to figure out what to cook and how to cook it, perhaps (in her vivid imagination) turning objects into what she needs. A small ball becomes an apple. A pencil becomes a knife.
You might also help her to problem solve if, for example, she is trying to manage too many things at once. You can offer, “How about I hold the baby for you while you set the table?” The physics of gravity aside (the baby or the dishes are at great risk!), your input can teach her to develop a support network while parenting.
Imagining solutions is the key to solving problems, big and small. Critical thinking is the ability to connect ideas in new ways. Albert Einstein himself considered imagination to be far more important than knowledge.
As she gains verbal skills, your daughter will get better and better at playing with another child. This is much harder than playing with a cooperative adult. But with continued opportunities to learn how to share ideas, space and materials, playmates will get better at maintaining make believe roles in a shared scene. Pretend play is a wonderful medium for two young children to learn how to communicate and cooperate with each other as long as adults are nearby with their greater wisdom for conflict negotiation.
The imaginative child is often easy to work with when it comes to such drudgeries as cleaning up. Instead of calling an end to play time (what child wants that to happen?) have her call out the cranes or the trains or whatever she’d like to join you in becoming. Together you add appropriate sound effects to scoop up the toys and transport them where they need to go. Another cleanup game is to alternate as robot and controller, or refuse truck and dispatcher to take turns dispatching each other to collect the loose items that need to be put away. Truly, anything can happen when the imagination is engaged.
There is a freedom in the land of make-believe where any role is possible, any emotion is valid and any plot twist is in the control of the (child) director. Vivian Gussin Paley, author of “The Boy on the Beach: Building Community Through Play” and many other books that marvel at childhood, has this to say about fantasy play: It “often confuses the adult, but it is the child’s real and serious world, the stage upon which any identity is possible and secret thoughts can be safely revealed.”
Enjoy the wonders of your daughter’s imagination.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.