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Imagination vs. Reality

The realm of pretend

In his second year, your child develops the brain circuitry that allows him to hold a block and imagine it's a car. Drinking from an imaginary cup of tea, hammering pretend nails, and playing a tiger roaming the wilds of the living room are ways for him to learn about reality. He's figuring out the emotions and behaviors of tea-drinking mommies, nail-banging carpenters, and roaring tigers.

Absorption into these fascinating new worlds can be intense.

For babies and young toddlers, the ability to distinguish between what's real and what's pretend isn't reliable. "I've got a ten-month-old who loves to talk on the play phone," says Mary Manix, who works in the infant room of a childcare provider in Spokane, Washington. "I think he thinks he's doing the same thing we're doing." At that age, it's likely he doesn't know what a real phone is, so imitation is reality to him.

He won't stay confused for long. Older toddlers know what's real when they're playing but often ignore it. Fiction is simply more fun. "It's like they want to get out of their own reality," says Katie Koralia, a preschool teacher in Duluth, Minnesota, who has a 3-year-old student who often prefers to be addressed as Batboy. "I don't think he really thinks he's Batboy," she says.

"Two-and-a-half-year-olds understand the distinction between real and pretend," says Susan Engel, Ph.D., author of Real Kids. "But when they're in play mode, they can lose sight of that distinction, or it becomes unimportant."

With language improvement comes more sophisticated role-playing and more interest in crossing and recrossing the boundary of reality. In Charlottesville, Virginia, Cindy Cartwright's then 3-year-old daughter Meridith talked at length about her imaginary friend Mana. But Meridith was in charge of the fantasy. "After we moved, Meridith said that Mana had moved, too. But when I asked, 'Is Mana going to come over?' " says Cartwright, "Meridith said, 'Oh, she's just pretend.' "

To make peace with make-believe:

Respect their world. "He won't answer to Eric," says Koralia of her student. "So I say, 'Batboy, time to clean up.'"

Work with him. If it's pj's time but your child is lost in playland, make bedtime part of the game.

Don't worry. Pretend play lets kids figure out the real world of emotions, relationships, and ideas.

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