Imaginary Play and Preschoolers
Have you ever looked at your toddler and wondered what it must be like to see the world through their eyes? I’m not talking about their eye-level of course, that’s old news with the invention of extra durable cameras, but the actual going-on inside their minds. I myself recall a moment in elementary school wherein I had fully convinced myself that I was flying on an imaginary carpet, going back even further I had a stuffed asparagus that engaged in all of my adventures. His name was Tony, and my mother tells me that when I was little, I told her that he had a French accent. You just can’t make this stuff up.
Then in high school I got my first, adult-like look into the child’s eye, working as an assistant pre-school teacher in my Regional Occupation Program. One child in particular, really struck my attention as I would find her roaming the playground, on hands and knees, growling at invisible—to me at least—objects. Her name was Iris, she was an adorable blonde-haired, blue-eyed preschooler, who also happened to be a dinosaur. Each day I watched young Iris spend her outside time, crawling on her hands and knees, growling to her fellow dinosaurs (all of which were entirely invisible to the grown person’s eye) as a form of communication. In the moment that I asked her what she was playing, she turned to me, eyes confused, and responded simply “I’m a dinosaur.”
Iris’s response was one that is all too familiar with kids I’ve seen in present day. So involved her own pretend world, she didn’t realize in that moment that she was not in fact a dinosaur. Admittedly, as an adult (and a writer) that kind of imagination is something worth envying, but as a parent of a preschooler unsure of what
level of pretend play is normal, it can raise a few eyebrows. Iris’s mother, in particular, was unsure whether her daughter was involved in a normal form of pretend play, or if she had actually begun to take it too far. Common among parents of preschoolers, Iris’s mother was only concerned that her daughter was developing correctly. Assuring Iris’s mom that her pretend play (also known as dramatic or imaginative play) was not only developmentally on target but healthy to her cognitive growth as well, was as simple as pointing out the key components in a preschoolers developmental growth.
Imaginary Play and Developmental Growth
- Intellectual: Pretend play provides your child with a variety of problems to solve. It also offers a child plenty of opportunity for negotiation, creativity, organizing, and planning. For example a children playing “house” will have to negotiate what roles they will each play; decide what their houses look like, and will have to recall their own experiences and use their imagination to recreate a home experience.
- Physical: Children engaged in pretend play will experience an increased sense of both gross and fine motor skills. It will also help support a child’s fitness, health, and coordination skills. Research even shows that children engaged in rough housing, helps in the development of the frontal lobe and when done in a monitored situation, will help your child learn to self-regulate (how and when this kind of behavior is appropriate). Of course, if you believe that your child is engaged in excessive rough housing this should not go unnoticed as this very well can be detrimental to a preschooler’s development.
- Language: A child participating in pretend play will utilize words that you may not even have realized that they know. Typically, pretend play will lead to an increase in their vocabulary (yes, including words you may not have wanted them to know), as they try to describe the world around them. Pretend play helps your child understand the power of language and the connections that words have with the world around them.
- Social & Emotional: Engagement in active play asks your child to experiment with both the social and emotional roles of life. For example, a toddler will develop feelings of empathy when recreating a role or a person that they may know (i.e. mom and dad). Additionally, a child will learn to interact with those around them by taking turns, sharing responsibilities, and engaging with their surroundings in their own way.
Support Your Child’s Imagination
In short, pretend play is important for early childhood development. Being supportive of your toddler will encourage them to continue in their play and so will providing an environment that encourages pretend play. Stocking your home with such items as costume clothing, old telephones, and cooking utensils, your toddler will discover that they can recreate their surroundings and mimic them however they see fit. Your child’s imagination is something to be nurtured, valued, and cherished because unfortunately it won’t be quite as vivid forever. So help your preschooler’s imagination thrive, allow them to name their stuffed asparagus (I mean really who even owns a stuffed vegetable), or get on your hands and knees and become one with your child, even if that means becoming a growling dinosaur.
 Name has been changed to protect the child’s identity.