Flights of Fantasy

For your preschooler, imaginary play is about more than just fun. It's his way of sorting out his thoughts and feelings.

A child engages in imaginary play

Your preschooler has a magnificent ability. Given the opportunity, her mind can conjure imaginary playmates and talking animals. She can find creative uses for empty boxes and invent new games. This ability to pretend, which began around age two, is now in full bloom and can entertain her for hours.

But this ability is not a luxury — it’s a necessity, and is essential to her development. Elaborate imaginary play can hone problem-solving skills, lengthen the attention span, and assist in emotional growth. Because a child expresses feelings through role playing, pretending can even have a cathartic or healing effect.

For instance, after a doctor visit, your preschooler may play out her fears and anxieties by pretending to give one of her stuffed animals a shot. She may also act out, or invent, an upcoming visit with her birth mother by creating a scenario with her dolls.

Through play, children make sense of their world and learn to cope with it. When a child tries to fit Legos together, he’s on his way to becoming a problem-solver, to taking control of his world. Perceiving life as something to navigate nurtures a sense of competence that can help your child handle disappointments — such as the early loss of his birth parents — later in life.

Let the Games Begin

Though no one knows why, gender has a strong influence on imaginary play. Boys often pretend to be superheroes, while girls pretend to be mothers or teachers. Preschoolers love to imitate their parents, so family themes — playing house or mowing the lawn — come up in fantasy play as well.

As your child explores her world, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to weave in parts of her story. Choose a stuffed animal, for instance, and tell your child, “Teddy bear can’t live with his birth family, so we’re going to love and adopt him.” Scatter pieces of construction paper into a curvy path, and say, “This road leads us to your birthplace in Russia. What do you think we’ll see on the way?”

Engage your child in simple, open-ended activities, like drawing, painting, or playing with clay. Use this relaxed time to share more of the adoption tale (“Shall we draw the airplane Mommy and Daddy got on to adopt you?”) and to answer your child’s questions. Always follow your child’s lead during playtimes, and let him make up the rules. Preschoolers need to direct play in order to learn from it and process new information.


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