The Power of Pretend Play

Your child's make-believe world can be surprisingly elaborate. Try these ways to promote pretend play.
Boy in a king outfit

For the past two months, my 2 1/2 -year-old has refused to be called Noah; he's "Pasta the Baby Cat." He lives this fantasy around the clock and will correct anyone who uses his real name. He doesn't go to the potty -- he uses the "litter box." He sings along to songs by meowing and recounts elaborate adventures about Pasta and his family. Although I'm happy that he has such a vivid imagination, I wonder sometimes whether it's getting to be too much.

It turns out I have no reason to worry. "Pretend play helps toddlers gain an understanding of the world," says Susan Linn, Ed.D., author of The Case for Make Believe. Using their imagination lets them try out different roles, follow through with scenarios they create, and even tackle fears. Your child may start acting out real-life experiences, such as pretending to eat or sleep, typically between 12 and 24 months.

As he approaches age 3, the fantasies often become more elaborate. Your toddler may even invent an imaginary friend who lends comfort and helps him confront his anxieties. Whatever stage he's in, it's easy to encourage him to make believe.

Plan for Downtime

Instead of filling up every waking hour with activities, give your child opportunities to play on her own. Promote her creativity by setting up a play kitchen, a building corner, and a dress-up area (a basket of clothes you no longer wear will do nicely). Also consider getting an indoor tent or rigging one yourself. "Kids like hiding places -- a sheet placed over furniture can become anything from an igloo to a cave to a fort," says Dr. Linn. Make sure she gets outdoor time too, so she can kick up leaves, stare at the clouds, and run around the playground.

Stick with Simple Toys

Playthings that chirp, beep, and move at the press of a button can impede imaginative play because they do all the work for your toddler, whereas those that require him to come up with his own noises and ideas will further his creativity. Choose items such as low-tech cars and trucks, blocks, stuffed animals, and dolls. Avoid licensed products, especially if your child has seen the show or movie they're associated with. If kids know a character's voice and personality, they're more likely to become rigid about what they will and won't do, notes Dr. Linn.

Take Your Cues from Her

Feel free to join in your child's imaginative play, but follow her lead. If she's pretending to be a dog, you might say, "I'm your friend the elephant." If she rejects your overture, back off. Some toddlers use dramatic play as a soothing tool and don't want anyone else's company, says Frances Stott, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the Erikson Institute, in Chicago, a graduate school specializing in child development.

Read and Tell Stories

Books are excellent fodder for your child's pretend play. Not only do they introduce him to new characters and situations, but they also teach him how a narrative is structured. It's common for kids this age to insist on reading the same book many times in a row; they enjoy the repetition and may find it comforting. Board books are a good choice for toddlers because they won't rip the pages as they turn. Limit titles that talk and animated e-books, both of which fill in too many blanks. As you read, ask open-ended questions, such as "How do you think the princess is feeling now?" or 'What do you think will happen next?" suggests Dr. Linn.

Your child will probably love it when you make up your own stories and, as with books, may want to hear them over and over. Try to maintain your energy and enthusiasm, since that will keep the narrative more engaging. Have your child weigh in on decisions that influence the tale, such as what the raccoon's name should be or whether the baby bird stays in its nest or tries to fly, advises Dr. Linn. This lets him feel like part of the storytelling process.

Stock Up on Art Supplies

Drawing, painting, and sculpting are great entrées into make-believe. Keep markers and paints within easy reach, and look for opportunities for your child to express her imagination through art. You can write down a story and have your child illustrate it, or use Play-Doh to mold a figure that resembles her favorite character, suggests Dr. Stott.

Don't Pigeonhole Him

Just because your child isn't partial to dramatic play doesn't mean he lacks imagination. He may be a master builder or might spend hours playing at a water or sand table. That's fine, since these activities can entail make-believe too. You should continue to provide a nurturing environment for all types of pretend play, but don't fret if he prefers one way over another, says Dr. Linn.

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Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

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