Play with a Purpose — Good Parenting


Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Headshot2011Play with a Purpose — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I enjoy when I can play with my 3- and 4-year-old children, but I’ve noticed my suggestions are sometimes met with resistance. For example, they were playing “house” this morning. “Edgar” the 4-year-old was the dad and “Penny” was the mom. I pretended to ring the doorbell and announced myself as a neighbor looking for a lost dog. They politely declined to help me look and went back to arguing about what they were cooking for dinner.
Should I have persisted? I thought my scenario would have been interesting and a good lesson in neighborliness.


Don’t miss last weeks column on Bi-Polar disorder in kids

Dear Rebuffed,

How lovely that your two preschoolers get along so nicely! Dramatic play (also known as make-believe or playing house) is a rich opportunity for children to make sense of what they have experienced or observed in “real life” as well as a chance for adults to guide learning in social studies and relationships. Scenes typically center on family roles (including pets), then extend to communities. Lessons in how a community works can include neighbors and “community helpers” such as mail carriers, police officers, store clerks, and health care professionals. An extension of dramatic play is fantasy roles, such as fairies, wild animals, royalty, and superheroes. These imaginative roles are symbolic, representing an exaggeration of the underlying emotions in our everyday interactions. Superhuman powers express the hope of overcoming villains, “monsters” (who often symbolize a bad-tempered parent), and other such difficult challenges.

It appears your children were already engrossed in their family scene, learning how to negotiate and compromise to get dinner on the table. Family roles are often practiced during dramatic play, and can help children grasp all the complexities of family life in the critical years of brain formation. These rehearsals will benefit their future roles as partners and parents. Just as the neural pathways for walking and talking go through a learning process until the skills become automatic, the behavior patterns in relationships are likewise formed in early childhood through countless repetition until mastery. Often children will play out conflicts (such as a disagreement about what to cook) so they can try out solutions to see what works best. When their own grown-ups present healthy models of conflict negotiation, they are well on their way to successful relationships.

Sometimes, however, children are exposed to less than ideal social interactions. If you overhear mistreatment — manipulation, harsh words, threats of violence — you should step in to re-direct the adversaries to a more civil way to overcome their differences. Children who watch more violent media (action movies, the news, some cartoons) or who are witness to unhealthy relationships are more likely to use violence to solve their make-believe dramas. It is critical for the caring adults in their lives to re-direct the play. Enter the scene if they’ll let you, or else stop the play and begin a new activity. Find opportunities to correct the perceptions that have led to poor relationship skills.

A skill in play management is to leave it alone if it doesn’t need you. Likely the scene being played out is providing a good lesson for the participants. A lesson in neighborliness, still essential in the curriculum of early childhood, can be postponed for another time.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds 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

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]