As a child, I remember my favorite bedtime stories were not the ones read from books but the ones my father invented. He would pick some familiar object, like a neglected stuffed animal in my room or even a character from my wallpaper, and craft a magical adventure. My all-time favorite (and therefore a recurrent character!) Was a blue elephant who always managed to get himself into trouble.
When young children start pre-school and begin developing friendships outside the family, they are more prone than ever to enjoy make-believe. Parents are often confused at this development. "A child's ability to imagine a whole other place for herself is an essential development step," says Eleonora Villegas-Reimers, Ed.D., an associate professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston.
Vivain Gussen Paley, author of The Kindness of Children (Harvard University Press, 1999) concurs, "Children this age know there is a difference between fantasy and reality. Creating make-believe environments gives children the opportunity to try out new experiences. The results? A more confident, intelligent, and compassionate child.
As an adult, imagine a world without rules or the pressure to succeed. Sounds inviting, does not it? That is exactly what your children create every time they play. They are not merely entertaining themselves, they are perfecting vital social, emotional, and intellectual skills that they will use every day for the rest of their lives.
Doctors call it "symbolic thinking." Parents call it "make-believe." Kids call it anything from "playing store" to "dress up." Whether they are walking their baby doll in a stroller or saving the world from some humongous monster, children at play are giving adults a valuable insight into their understanding of the world around them.
But be warned: Adults must respect the world of make-believe. Do not assume you can join in! By watching and learning, parents have a wonderful opportunity to get to know their child better, however indirectly. Paley reassurances worried parents, "One of the most valuable things you can do as a parent is to understand why your child uses pret play – and then treasure her ability to do so."