One morning, after breakfast, with a face full of peanut butter, two-year-old Annie smiled at her father, my friend Kevin, and said, “Hi, Duane.” (“Duane” is the name of their daycare provider.) Now, her father could have reminded Annie that “I’m not Duane, I’m Daddy.” But she already knew that. Annie was inviting her father into her pretend play. Annie was “playing” with the idea that we could be different people. Ask anyone who spends time with toddlers and they will tell you that toddlers spend a great deal of their time experimenting. After all, toddlers are some of the most creative beings on earth.
Annie’s father chose a very important way to respond, “OK, little Annie, are you ready to wash up and go play with the other daycare kids?” She smiled and said, “Yes!”
And “Duane” and Annie were off on a daycare adventure. Annie’s father was able to recognize the invitation and respond in a way that permitted his daughter’s creative impulse to flourish.
You may join your child’s make-believe games (if you’re invited, of course), but remember: You should always let her direct the action. “Ruling an imaginary world is comforting to toddlers because the real one seems so big and intimidating to them,” says Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., author of Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning from Birth to Adolescence.
“This is their chance to be in control.” However, it is okay to help your child expand the story, which improves her powers of imagination, says Doris Bergen, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. For example, if you and your child are cooking a pretend meal for her stuffed animals, you might say, “Wow, Bunny ate all the delicious soup you gave him. What do you think a rabbit would like to have for dessert?”
Playing make-believe teaches important social skills such as empathy, language development, and coping with difficult situations. Here are a few great tips from Rebecca Kavanagh, a writer and mother in Farmington Hills, Michigan:
Tips for toddler pretend-play
1. Set a time limit. Say to a child, “I’ll play school for 15 minutes and then I have to clean up.”
2. Suggest changes when you and your child have done something too many times. If you have crawled on all fours until your knees are sore, suggest a change, like “Hey, now let’s pretend we can fly!”
3. Keep an eye out for ordinary items that can spark creativity. Empty toilet paper tubes become binoculars; outdated junk jewelry becomes sunken treasure.
4. Try to keep in mind that children spend much of their time being told what to do and when to do it. Playing pretend gives them a rare chance to make the rules. And it gives you a chance to see the kinds of ideas that are churning around inside their little heads.
And here’s a bonus: Annie’s father Kevin adds, “I don’t know if there’s any study that shows that parents of young children are more creative than other adults, but I do know that my daughters give me ready-made ways to exercise the creative parts of my brain.”
So be on the lookout for the way toddlers invite us into their creative world. Your creative impulses just may flourish too.
Mike Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.storymann.com), a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including daughter Laura, with whom he regularly collaborates on “Imagine That!” She is a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. This column was written by Mike.
© Michael Mann, 2010, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.