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Imagine That!

During the summer that my middle child, Henry, turned 3, our family watched a movie about a green parrot named Paulie that talks to humans. That night, we acquired a new (albeit invisible) pet: His name was also Paulie, and he too was a green bird. But this Paulie talked only to Henry, and the two of them spent a lot of time ganging up on me. "Paulie says naps are boring," Henry would announce, or "Paulie thinks it's okay for kids to have gum."

Before long, Paulie's invisible presence was so ubiquitous that other people in Henry's life began to refer to him too. At preschool, the other kids would remind Henry to put Paulie in the closet during naptime so he wouldn't keep them awake with his constant, Henry-interpreted chatter. And once, when Henry asked for a second helping of macaroni, his baby brother, 1-year-old Joe, said knowingly, "Pawy hungy."

Contributing editor Margaret Renkl wrote "A Miracle for Isaac," in the February issue.

Let's Pretend

When Paulie came to roost at our house, Henry's role in his arrival was evidently right on track. Bringing to life a character from a movie or a storybook is typical of most 3-year-olds, one of many steps in the development of a child's imagination, a process that begins around his first birthday. From then on, imagination blooms spontaneously and is a delight to watch over the years: A baby babbles into a toy telephone. A toddler tenderly feeds her doll a bottle. An exuberant 3-year-old clad in Superman pajamas flies with abandon down the hall, intent on saving the day. When a child engages in pretend play, it's nothing short of magical.

But such seeming frivolity isn't frivolous. Pretend play is a vital component of learning throughout childhood, one that becomes increasingly complex as a child grows. It allows kids to:

  • Explore and make sense of their world.

  • Confront problems and find solutions.

  • Express desires and feelings they aren't able to articulate in real life.

  • Build a foundation for many skills they'll need in adulthood, such as making and maintaining friendships, problem solving, and thinking creatively.

Although a child's imagination sprouts naturally, there's much you can do to coax the magic into bloom. Research shows that kids learn a lot about make-believe by watching other people  -- especially their parents and older siblings  -- and having them take part in their pretend play.

At each stage of a child's imaginative development, it's key to respect what he's doing and to respond wholeheartedly. Your delight and participation in his flights of fancy will allow his imagination to soar.

First Fantasies

Around the time she turns 1, a baby begins to understand that things exist even if they aren't immediately visible. She figures out that a ball that's rolled under the chair is still there, even though she can't see it. Grasping this concept, known as object permanence, is a necessary first step to being able to pretend.

Almost simultaneously, she'll begin to use objects  -- real and toy versions  -- as she's seen others use them. She'll stir a wooden spoon around in an empty pot or bring a toy teacup to her lips. For the most part, she's just mimicking what she sees and isn't actually pretending to cook up some oatmeal or savor a sip of oolong. Still, experts consider these actions to be signs of "pre-pretense." Parents can encourage this developmental stage by providing child-size versions of everyday items, from little plastic plates and silverware to downsized brooms, steering wheels, and gardening tools.

To a baby who's holding a plastic spoon to a doll's mouth, for example, you might say something like "Oh, the baby must be hungry! Are you feeding her some pears?" Acknowledging her pretend play will help her make the leap to the next developmental level, when simple imitation transforms into genuine imaginative play, at 14 to 15 months. Though toddlers this age still focus on re-creating common daily events and actions  -- pretend eating and pretend sleeping are big with the under-18-months set  -- it becomes obvious that they're deliberately pretending. They'll also get creative with their props, no longer needing a clone of an object to pretend with, but often employing something entirely unrelated to the thing they're pretending to use.

That's what Laura Hileman, a mother of two in Nashville, witnessed when her son William was around 15 months old. "He'd pick up a long, narrow object, like a spoon or a rectangular wooden block, and hold it up to his ear to 'talk' on the phone." How could Hileman tell that William's babbling was truly a pretend phone conversation? "At the end of every conversation he'd always say 'Bye-bye' and hang up," she says.

Children of Invention

By making do with a spoon when a toy phone wasn't handy, William had reached a phase in the evolution of his imagination that involves what developmental experts call object substitution. During early toddlerhood this form of pretense really blossoms. When my youngest son, Joe, was 22 months old, he handed me a sycamore ball he'd found on the ground and said perfectly clearly: "Dis you tea bag, Mommy." I didn't know it then, but we were in the middle of a tea party.

Again, the best way to respond at this stage is to play along. But now your role isn't to guide the game but to follow your child's lead. Participate and have fun, but let him stay in control of the action, says Charles Smith, Ph.D., a professor at the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University and the author of From Wonder to Wisdom: Using Stories to Help Children Grow.

At this point, it's also helpful to limit the kinds of toys that steal the child's opportunities to imagine and pretend, says Evelyn Petersen, author of Growing Creative Kids. Instead of a baby doll that cries when you pull her string, let your child provide both the wailing-infant sounds and the soothing-parent sounds. Instead of a truck that makes authentic noises when you push a button, buy a plain one that a kid can turn into an ambulance ("wheeooo, wheeooo, wheeooo") or a dump truck backing up ("beep, beep, beep, beep") or a monster racing truck shifting gears ("grrrrrrrr-uhnnnn").

Around their second birthday, kids begin to create more elaborate imaginary scenarios. Often, their play will focus on re-creating situations that have particular meaning in their own lives. Sometimes these will be troubling occasions that the child needs to reexperience safely, such as an encounter with a snarling dog. "Play is kids' way of sorting things out and making them more manageable," says Smith.

In this kind of fantasy, it's not unusual for your child to take on the role of the adult in the experience, adds Julie Riess, Ph.D., director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School and a lecturer in psychology and education at Vassar College. For instance, he might reenact a traumatic visit to the pediatrician for a vaccination  -- only in his pretend doctor's office, he's wielding the needle and it's a teddy bear that gets the shot.

Quite often toddlers simply draw on ordinary events as a basis for imaginative play, and it can be very elaborate. Ralph Mobley of Marietta, GA, remembers walking into the family room after a Saturday golf game to find his younger daughter, Sydney, age 4, sitting on the floor beside an upside-down shoe box. Next to it she had stacked several toys and pieces of plastic food. Carefully she'd pick up an item, swipe it across the box while making a beeping sound, and set it down on the other side. When Mobley asked her what she was doing, she replied, "I'm helping this lady ring up her stuff. Would you put the stuff in bags?" Immediately, Dad got busy bagging groceries.

Prime Pretending Time

Around age 3, kids begin to imagine objects and beings that aren't triggered by events in their actual lives. Shannon Anderson of Ann Arbor, the mother of Evan, 5, and David, 3, says that her boys love to watch Thomas the Tank Engine videos and then replay the stories on their own train set  -- often with different outcomes.

Similarly, Christine Ives of Morrison, CO, says that her boys, Jacob, 4, and Henry, 3, fell in love with the movie Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves and spent hours pretending to be the characters in the movie. They'd zap each other with imaginary shrinking machines (sometimes just pointing their fingers, sometimes using kitchen utensils) and then fall down to the ground.

Ives did her best to play along but occasionally ran into trouble: "It was hard for me to remember when they were supposed to be shrunk and when they were normal size!" Still, her instincts were right on target. "When parents engage in the spirit of the game," says Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D., author of Dr. Toy's Smart Play: How to Raise a Child With a High P.Q. (Play Quotient), "kids gain confidence. They see that what they're able to create with their imagination is valuable and important."

This is the age when imaginary playmates tend to join the family. Experts see them as an opportunity for a child to exert some control over his own world  -- which is actually a sign of emotional health. Imaginary playmates don't have to play by the adult rules  -- they provide a sense of power, which boosts self-esteem. How much should you go along when Stinky the Skunk moves in? "Respect your child's fantasy, but don't enter into it," says Smith. For instance, if your youngster wants to set an extra place at the table for his pretend pal, let him  -- but don't volunteer to do it yourself.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Never confuse a child's tall tales with lying or suppress her creative instincts by correcting her. Encourage her instead; you may be delighted by what she says. One night, when Laura Hileman's older son, Gabriel, was 3, he told her, "The moon is going back to his mama." She urged the story on: "Where is his mama?" "She lives in the moon-forest trees," Gabriel explained. Sheer poetry!

The inspiration to tell stories emerges at about the same time as the urge to draw pictures, to play dress-up, and to compose silly songs  -- all expressions of creativity worth celebrating. Ways to nurture the budding artist or dramatist: When she draws a picture, take a minute to let her tell you the story of what's happening on the page, says Petersen. Write down the words of her stories, then encourage her to illustrate them. Read lots of story-books, but make up your own tales as well, letting your child supply the ending or invent a new direction in which the story can go. Do the same thing with music: Collaborate with your little diva in devising new lyrics for favorite tunes. Save old shoes and clothes in a dress-up basket your child can easily reach. And be ready to serve as a bridesmaid in an impromptu wedding or as a victim whom your trusty firefighter needs to rescue from a terrible blaze.

Then be prepared to bow out. As they approach kindergarten, children often begin to be self-conscious about their imaginative endeavors, preferring to play alone or with friends. Respect those boundaries. Don't just barge in when your daughter is teaching a class full of stuffed bears and baby dolls their ABC's, but certainly play along if you're invited.

More than anything else, allow yourself to revel in the unique, wonderful worlds your child creates. If she's allowed to go with the whims of her imagination as she grows, she'll attain skills that will help her to navigate the equally wonderful but much more complicated world she'll live in as an adult.