With the help of a frilly dress, tiara, and magic wand, your 3-year-old is transformed into the queen of a magical universe where her hobby horse is a winged unicorn. When you're asked to taste the pink clouds, you agree that they're a lot like bubblegum.
Your son pulls a sheet over his shoulders and runs as fast as he can across the lawn. The air lifts the fabric; your boy's legs leap into the air. "I'm flying, mommy!" the 4-year-old says. He's a superhero, out to save the backyard from dragons hiding behind the bushes and find treasure buried in the sandbox.
Parents of preschoolers have a front-row seat to some of the most imaginative theater ever produced. These are the so-called "magic years" — when a child's brain is developed enough to imagine grand stories but not yet complex enough to reason the way adults do and ask, "But can that really happen?"
Here's why imagination is so important and what you can do to foster these magic years.
How Preschoolers View the World
There's a lot that very young children aren't yet able to grasp about the world around them. As a result, they "fill in the blanks" and often make up their own sometimes magical explanations for how things work.
This time, which peaks during the preschool years, was dubbed "the magic years" by child development expert Selma Fraiberg, PhD, in 1959 when she wrote a book of the same name.
Babies use their senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound) to explore their world. As they develop, they begin to understand the basic function of things ("If I push this button, the pony will pop out of the barn!").
Now, as preschoolers, they take this knowledge and combine it with a growing imagination to come up with fantastical ideas about why and how things happen.
Pretend play lets kids try out new roles for themselves (like superheroes, princesses, wild animals, or even parents) and allows for creative problem-solving. But it also helps them deal with another hurdle of the preschool years: intense emotions. Baby dolls might be put in "time out" and scolded for actions suspiciously similar to your little one's latest offense. An imaginary friend (who's a bigger troublemaker than your child ever could be) might be dreamed up to help your child deal with feelings of guilt and remorse following a moment of lost control, such as hitting a playmate.
Self-control is a tough skill to learn, and pretend play helps kids practice it as well as play out the frustration it creates.
How to Encourage Imaginative Play
Imaginative play begins in a child's mind. But that doesn't mean parents can't join in. Here are some ways to encourage your child's world of make-believe:
- Go along with it. When young ones leap through the air and tell you they're flying, don't tell them they're only jumping. Instead, feed the fantasy: "Wow, you're so high up! What can you see on the ground? Maybe you should take a rest on that nice puffy cloud." Or even better, start flying with them.
- Choose old-fashioned toys. Blocks, dolls, arts and crafts, and molding clay are all toys that require creativity and therefore spur imagination.
- Limit electronic toys. Whether it's a handheld entertainment system or a "junior" laptop, try to avoid toys that need batteries. Creativity is stifled when the toy, rather than the child, directs the play.
- Read to your child. And while reading, ask mind-opening questions: "If you were the caterpillar, what would you eat?" and "What do you think will happen next in the story?" This not only encourages imagination but promotes language skills and fosters an interest in books.
- Schedule downtime. Make sure kids have free time every day to play on their own. Aside from encouraging creativity, it teaches them to use their own resources to amuse or soothe themselves.
- Limit screen time. When kids watch a movie or even an educational program, they experience someone else's make-believe world instead of using their own imaginations. Some subjects on TV are not appropriate for preschoolers. Young kids also are more influenced by advertising since they can't tell the difference between commercials and actual programs. The same goes for digital advertising inserted in online games and apps. Experts recommend limiting screen time (which includes TV, DVDs, computers, smartphones, and tablets) to no more than 1 hour of quality programming per day for kids 2 to 5 years old.
When the Magic Ends
The day will come when the princess tiaras collect dust and your little ones no longer believe they can fly. It's a bittersweet moment. You'll miss glimpses into that world where anything is possible. But it's a sign that your child's brain is developing as it should.
The prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain just behind the forehead — has made the connections it needs to process more high-level thinking. So, the way a child thought the world worked is now not necessarily how it actually does work.
Take, for example, vacuum cleaners. A 2-year-old might throw a tantrum because he fears that, just as the dog hair got sucked up off the carpet, he will too. But a year or two later, he might pretend he's being chased by the vacuum "monster" — and gain confidence from knowing that it will never get him.
By age 6 or so, kids are becoming aware that fears like being swallowed up by a vacuum are irrational — there's no way your entire body can be sucked up that little tube! — and instead might want to take control and do the vacuuming on their own. This scenario will be repeated again and again as a child's brain learns to tell the difference between the possible and the impossible.
This time in childhood, sometimes called "the age of reason," is also when kids begin to form a conscience, differentiate between right and wrong, and act not just on impulse but because something is the "right" thing to do.
The age of reason explains why many second-graders are masters at sharing — they can consider the feelings of others. And it also explains why monsters that once hid under the bed have suddenly disappeared. A child this age realizes that since he or she never saw the monster, it probably does not exist.
This is also a time when your fantastical answers to their increasingly complex questions will no longer cut it. Thunder can no longer be a bowling match in the sky and the moon definitely isn't made of cheese. But just because your kids have reached the age of reason doesn't mean they can't imagine a bowling match in the sky or a moon made of cheese — it just means that now they'll be in on the joke.
And as they grow, their imaginations and creativity will translate into art, music, and creative writing, and help with critical thinking.
The critical thinking that inspires kids to dig deeper for information and grasp more complex ideas is their next key skill. And it's the tool that will turn them into decision-makers and problem-solvers who will make you proud as they mature into their teen years.