Want your child to be a good friend, to feel confident and secure, and to succeed in school? It's as simple as encouraging her love of make-believe. You can help her get more from her favorite types of pretend play by reading up on why toddlers love them.
To you, a block is just a block, but put it in your toddler's hands and it becomes anything from a sandwich to a cruise ship. This may not seem like a major developmental milestone, but the ability to think symbolically is essential to learning language and math. "It's how children come to understand that letters stand for sounds and numbers represent amounts," says Jane M. Healy, PhD, author of Your Child's Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning from Birth to Adolescence. Symbolic play also requires your kid to think abstractly, which helps him become a creative problem solver.
Your Role: At playtime, provide your toddler with simple toys and props such as dolls, old sheets and blankets, and pots and pans, that he can use in a variety of ways, says Doris Bergen, PhD, professor of educational psychology at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. (As you've probably noticed by now, even a simple cardboard box can keep him entertained for days, so give him that too!). Buying your child anything too realistic, such as a toy cell phone, limits his creativity, since he'll have a difficult time pretending it's something different.
In the beginning, you're apt to catch your kid pretending to be her idol: you! In her eyes, you're superstrong, you seem to know everything, and you're always in control--qualities all toddlers wish they had. As she gets older, she'll try on other take-charge adult roles (think doctor, policewoman, or store owner), which helps her make sense of the real world.
Your Role: Join your child's make-believe games (if you're invited, of course), but remember: You should always let her direct the action. "Ruling an imaginary world is comforting to toddlers because the real one seems so big and intimidating to them," says Dr. Healy. "This is their chance be in control." However, it is okay to help your child expand the story, which improves her powers of imagination, says Dr. Bergen. For example, if you and your child are cooking a pretend meal for her stuffed animals, you might say, "Wow, Bunny ate all the delicious soup you gave him. What do you think a rabbit would like to have for dessert?"
Considering the thrill children get out of pretending to be a grown-up, it's no wonder that they're also crazy about mimicking the most powerful (albeit make-believe) version of adults: superheroes. Pretending to be Batman or Wonder Woman allows 2- and 3-year-olds to feel brave and invincible, which helps them develop self-confidence, says Dr. Healy. Another awesome perk: All that running and leaping keeps them active and builds strength, balance, and coordination.
Your Role: Make sure your child's superheroic adventures are safe. Explain that it's okay for your child to pretend he's strong, but only if he doesn't hurt himself or anyone else. Set some ground rules for superhero play: It's only allowed in the playroom or outside, and he can never hit or jump on anyone, for example. And be sure to point out that superheroes are cool because they help out people in trouble--not because they're tough.
On the surface, it doesn't make much sense that your monster-phobic kid would even want to utter the "m" word, let alone spend any time pretending to be one. But slipping into scary roles helps toddlers cope when they feel freaked out. At this age, your child may not have the vocabulary to explain what's bothering her, but she is able to release her emotions through play. "It's a safe way for her to explore her bad feelings and find ways to manage them," says Dr. Healy.
Your Role: If your child decides to involve you in her scary dramas--by making you the monster's "victim," for example--don't try to dismiss her fears by acting brave or indifferent, which may frustrate her. Instead, let her know that you understand how she feels ("That monster seems pretty scary!"), so she knows you're listening. Then, try to ease her anxiety by making her laugh. You might invent a silly monster to get her mind off the bad one ("It has six heads and pink stripes, and it only eats doughnuts!").
Parents may find it a little bizarre that their toddler loves hanging out with invisible buddies, but these pals can actually be healthy for kids. Playing with a make-believe sidekick helps your kid develop the social skills he needs to get along with other children, such as sharing, cooperation, and taking turns. And if you happen to catch him arguing with his faux friend, rest assured that that's a great learning experience too: These battles allow your toddler to practice working through conflicts that commonly come up on playdates, such as fights over toys and what games to play. Invisible pals can also provide moral support, just as a real friend would, says Dr. Bergen. "Your toddler may be better able to deal with unfamiliar or scary situations because he doesn't feel alone."
Your Role: Feel free to acknowledge the pretend friend. If your child wants you to set an extra place at the dinner table, for example, just go with it. And don't worry that he'll lose touch with reality; kids this age do understand that these buddies don't exist. As long as your toddler has friends in the real world, you don't need to be concerned about his imaginary one.
Jump-start your child's imagination by stocking his dress-up wardrobe with this simple, versatile gear.
* Old clothes and shoes: Include things that are easy for toddlers to put on without help, such as bathrobes and wide-neck shirts.
* Scarves: Colorful scarves and bandannas can easily be turned into a cape or a blanket for a doll.
* Purses and lunchboxes: Toddlers love packing and unpacking any kind of container. Plus, carrying a bag helps them pretend to go to a job or to school.
* Hats and accessories: In your child's eyes, headgear alone is a very convincing costume. Hats signify so many different characters, so the possibilities are endless.