Young children will use dolls, toy cars, trucks, sheets, play food – anything for their imaginative play, to act out familiar stories, or events. This is their safe world, where they’re the ones in charge, and they can make, or break, the rules. For years it was thought that it was an escape from the real world, and once a child reached a certain age, they should give up these fantasies.
Not so. Sometimes a child can use this imaginary world to come to terms with something they’re afraid of. If it’s the dark, and they’re afraid of monsters in their cupboard, then they might pretend to be monsters during the day. This desensitises them somewhat, and the role play is their own way of dealing with their fears.
A child’s first imaginative play will be re-creating familiar activities, like going to the shops for bread and milk, or feeding their dolls. These activities will help them see their role in the family. The pretend play will also involve the retelling of something fictional they have seen or heard. Believe it or not, when you child dresses up as a doctor, a nurse, or even Mummy or Daddy, he/she is organising thoughts in a way that fits the role. Then, by the time he or she, reaches the age of five, they have a pretty good understanding and awareness that other people have their own thoughts and feelings.
Having an imaginary friend is an important stage of social development for many four year olds. These imaginary friends need not necessarily be human. They can be dogs, horses, crickets or even fairies in my sister Jen’s case. We all got involved in that one, myself included. I was a believer, and I am almost 3 years older than Jen.
We had the fairies in the bougainvillea tree in Blackall. Not just one – a whole family, and the mother fairy appeared to be a single Mum with numerous kids, as far as I remember. I was in Grade 3, so Jen was probably Grade 1 at the time. Well, we were bringing friends home from school to see our fairies – a black knob in the corner of a branch, high up in the tree, in the shape of a cloaked, Mother fairy. No, these fairies were not your usual pretty fairies. More gnomish to look at. So, we made beds out of matchboxes and cotton wool, and drew tiny teeny hop scotches for them in the dirt. This was our own magical world! And we lived it for quite a long time, until one day it came to a very abrupt end. Baby fairy, who we had known since birth…died. We mourned this heartbreaking news with gallons of tears. That was it for Mum. We were told – “There are no fairies, stop the rot.” (I could be ad libbing here, but it was words to that effect.) (Sigh) We did truly believe.
I could be guilty of some similar reaction myself, with my daughter Kylie, in regards to the Tooth Fairy. After 5 nights, looking for a tooth that was hidden, in many different places, from said Tooth Fairy, I finally gave up. Yes, I very crossly broke the news to Kylie that the Tooth Fairy was actually me! In my defence, I believe she was testing the truth… I think she only half believed. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!
At times, imaginary friends will be your child’s carer – a fun carer, who will let them do absolutely anything they want. Eat ice cream by the bucket load, stay up late, jump out of high buildings, go out by themselves.
These days, child development experts say that imagination actually does play a role in your child understanding reality. There is evidence that role playing helps children understand what’s real, and what’s not. And, it gives them the opportunity to experience from another perspective. The exception here is with autistic kids. They won’t engage much in pretend play, and researchers are using this marker to understand how a child’s cognition develops, and then look for any delays in their development.
Imaginative play helps prepare your child for adulthood. It teaches them about their own place in the world, and how to interact with that world. Creatively – it’s an added bonus! Imaginary play is a must for any child’s physical, mental and social wellbeing, and they will be able to draw on their imagination, as an adult. Every new idea starts with imagination!