The Land of Make-Believe

For preschoolers, pretend play is a safe space where they can sort through complicated feelings.

A young girl engages in pretend play

Four-year-old Sarah is hosting a tea party. Dolls and stuffed animals sit with her. As she pours imaginary tea and passes around imaginary cookies for her guests, she says, “I’m happy my birth mommy is here with me and my mommy and my sister. I like parties, don’t you?” She says to her birth mom, “Mommy loves parties, too. She is nice and makes cookies.”

Play is the work of children. In its many forms, it helps them understand their world. Perhaps the most important type of play for preschoolers is fantasy or pretend-play. Pretending helps children practice everyday things, as when they play house. It reinforces that safe feeling of home and family, and allows children to take on different roles — parent, sibling, even the dog.

Pretend play can also be a path to healing, letting children release feelings of fear and sadness. By enacting a troubling scenario, they can make sense of the event, move through their feelings, and take control. For the preschooler who was adopted, common pretend play themes may include joining her family, fear of being taken away, having babies, or battles of “good mommies” versus “bad mommies.” Observing such scenes, you may wonder if your child is having a hard time. Rest easy — this type of play is healthy and healing. Here’s what you’ll notice, age by age:

By age 2, experimentation at pretend play begins. Basic needs and normal activities, such as feeding babies or driving cars, are common themes.

At age 3, children begin to link pieces of a story together, problem-solve, and make plans. Play expands to feeding the baby, putting her to bed, hearing her cry, and soothing her — mimicking real life. Games like “I’m gonna get you” afford rapid shifts between being the “monster” and being oneself. These games also help children experience the anticipation of intense emotion and learn impulse control in a safe setting.

By age 4, pretend-play becomes more complex, yet more literal. Feelings, ideas, wishes, and fears become more apparent. Themes in play may last longer — playing “house” for a week or a “school” for a month. While themes remain constant, the roles, dialogue, and outcomes change and develop.

Parents may be tempted to “make it all better” by intruding on play, trying to take away hurtful thoughts or feelings — or the play itself. But we need to encourage these games and follow our child’s lead. The child who plays out his fear of being abandoned and creates his own endings will be more in control and better able to cope with everyday separations. Working through feelings in pretend-play makes it less likely that they will intrude on real life.

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