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The Magic of Make-Believe

Whenever our boys, Luke, 5, and Tommy, 4, get restless during a long drive, my wife and I divert them with a fresh installment of Gizmo the Wonder Dog and Juliet the Surfing Cat. The heroes (based on our pet Pekingese and graying tabby) chase bad guys, capture mice, and scour the earth in search of chocolate ice cream, hot dogs, and fish sticks. Instantly, our bored boys are mesmerized. They exult in plot twists, celebrate the inevitable happy ending, and then call out, "Again! Again!"

While the goal behind these tales is modest—keeping Luke and Tommy entertained so we can reach our destination in peace—researchers say telling stories does more than that. It not only improves the language skills and thinking capacity of young children, but it also boosts their imagination.

"Stories are a great way to spark children's creative impulses, which helps them learn," says Joan Almon, coordinator of the Alliance for Childhood, in College Park, Maryland.

Making time for pretend is more important than ever these days. Fortunately, it doesn't take much effort to stimulate your child's flights of fancy. Here are six surefire ways to do it.

Promote Creative Play

There are any number of ways to help your child act out the scenarios swirling around in her head. Recreate a scene from a movie she's watched. Give her a blanket that can stand in as a superhero's cape. Fill a bag with dress-up clothes and accessories. Nonbreakable objects and furniture in your house can also be useful pretend props. Empty boxes, for instance, have endless creative possibilities. Avoid the temptation to become the stage director. "Don't join in unless your child asks you to," says Vivian Gussin Paley, author of A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play. "But do show interest in what she's doing by asking her to narrate."

Read to Her

To make up her own thoughts, a child needs a base of knowledge about the world (she can't pretend she's a space traveler or a ballerina unless she knows what an astronaut or a dancer does), and she needs inspiration. Books are an ideal way to supply both of these building blocks.

Set aside time to read to your child each day. "Kids should come to expect books, just as they expect lunch or a nap," says Lonnie Sherrod, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Fordham University, in New York City. While any children's title will do, expose your child to a broad variety of stories until you find ones that match her interests.

Go Outdoors

Could your child use a break from board games and videos? A short journey outside your front door will clear his head—and jump-start his imagination. "Kids invent all sorts of games when you take them outside," Almon says. "There's space to create their own universe." Here are just a few of the limitless outside options.

  • Lie on the grass together, and have him describe the shapes he sees in the clouds.
  • As you take a walk, pretend you're wandering through a forest, and compose a tale together.
  • Bring action figures or dolls out to the backyard. You'll be surprised: Getting outdoors will make tired toys seem fresh and fun.

Get Arty

In a special corner of your house, keep a ready supply of paper, colored pencils, paints, squares of cloth, plastic straws, tape, string, scissors, and glue so your kids can work on projects whenever they like. Also collect objects that can be used in collages, such as seashells, sticks, pinecones, leaves, and rocks, suggests Diana Roda, a children's art teacher in Cortland, New York.

Spin Yarns

Narrating a story, whether it's real or made-up, can expand a young child's mind. "It's no coincidence that when you get children together and say 'Once upon a time,' they sit and listen," Paley says. If tall tales don't come naturally, simply recount one of your favorite childhood stories or something interesting that happened to you when you were a kid.

Ready to try making one up? Follow these suggestions from Odds Bodkin, a children's storyteller in Bradford, New Hampshire.

  • Model the main character after your child. If he's a bundle of energy, make your imaginary hero climb a mountain in record time to defeat alien invaders; if he loves swimming, send your protagonist across a great ocean to save the day.
  • Concoct magical helpers and imaginary animals. Also use funny sounds to place your little listener firmly in the tale.
  • Always finish with a happy ending. "A story should teach a child that even if things look bleak for the moment, they can turn out fine if you follow through," Bodkin says.

Keep it Simple

What parent hasn't given a child an expensive gift only to watch him push it aside and play with the box? Many times, the most basic toys—building blocks, molding clay, plastic toolboxes—lead to the most vivid fantasies. "A good toy is 90 percent child, 10 percent toy," Almon says. "The more explicit and elaborate it is, the less room there is for a kid's mind to take over."

Copyright© 2005. Reprinted with permission from the April 2005 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.