Why you should support imaginary play

Jan 15, 2009 at 2:21 p.m. ET

Lately Sunshine has been carrying a small notebook around the house. In it are scribbles. She, however, insists they are recipes for things like M&M cookies, pancakes - basically all her favorite foods. When she comes to me and asks to make a specific recipe from her "cookbook," showing me the page, my response is important.

Little Girl Playing Make Believe

I could dismiss her notebook and her requests by pointing out what is obvious to me as an adult, that the "recipes" are just scribbles, not real recipes. Or I could play along. Mostly I play along. Sunshine is engaging in very normal imaginary play and I think one of my jobs as a parent is to support that - to support her developing imagination.

A glimpse into their world

Sunshine is also very into creating elaborate scenarios with her Playmobil figures. I love to ask Sunshine questions about these worlds she creates. Who is doing what and why? She creates whole other worlds where things happen just as she wants them to, and the rules are hers and hers alone (and often change on whim). As she is learning that the real world doesn't always act the way she wants it to - that, gasp!, it doesn't revolve around her - she channels her understanding and emotion about that reality into her imaginary play. As she's figuring out what things mean, it comes out in her imaginary play.

Sunshine's point of view during this imaginary play can be quite astute. She teaches me to slow down and try to see thing from another point-of-view. And, really, pancakes are a perfectly fine dinner entree.

Creativity - coping skills

Sunshine's imaginary play - whether through her cookbook or her Playmobil scenes - tells me about the things going on in her mind. Not only is she developing a creative imagination, but she's also developing coping skills. While she is learning that she can't be in control of situations in the rest of her life, she certainly can be in this imaginary world she creates.

Mimicking the adult world

I'm often amused how these worlds mimic the real/adult world. There are roles for parent and child characters, and she models things like conflict resolution (or not, if she's particularly annoyed with her brothers), daytime and nighttime routines (her characters have to go to sleep), and so on. When the adult characters are always busy or short-tempered in her scenes, I know it's time to cut back on my busy-ness and spend more time in her world, with her.

Some people worry when their child enters this highly imaginative play phase. There were moments with the boys when I wondered if they were leaning too much toward the imaginative to the expense of their understanding of reality, but it all played out fine in the end. That's where were at now with Sunshine - just trying to enjoy it and let it play out. And we're having a good bit of fun in the process.

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