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Nurturing the Power of Make-Believe

Brown Bear, polyester companion to our younger son, Ian, takes after his 2-year-old mentor in many ways: He prefers to sleep on the couch, loves Nutella on toast, insists on his own chair at the table, and is afraid of the home-heating-oil truck. But in one significant way Bear differs. He's toilet-trained.

Of course, it was I who first heard Bear say, "I have to go." Now, however, it's Ian who alerts us that Bear's about to wet the couch; Ian who drags him to the bathroom, seats him with great care ("He doesn't want to fall in"), supplies the missing soundtrack, whisks him off, flushes, and "washes" his paws.

I'm confident that in time, comforted by Bear never being flushed out of sight, Ian, too, will announce he's got to go to the potty. Just by having his pretend buddy play out the toilet script, Ian is conquering his own fears of an intimidating process. And by responding to requests that haven't been uttered and acting on desires that aren't his own, he's realizing that others don't necessarily feel the same way he does. Amazingly, by "making believe" with Bear, Ian's getting a head start on the complex tasks of becoming an avid learner, able problem solver, compassionate friend, and emotionally secure individual who doesn't fear failure.

Melinda Marshall is writing a book, with Olympic gold medalist Summer Sanders, on what champion athletes learned from their parents.

How Imagination Emerges

Of all the developments we thrill to see in our kids, a flowering imagination is unmatched for sheer evolutionary significance. Being able to create fictional worlds at the same time we're learning to make sense of the real one is what makes humans unique, according to Claire Golomb, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts who studies pretend play. In this early capacity to make believe, she says, "is the origin of innovation and the beginning of abstract thought. We begin to think about possibilities."

Most psychologists agree that the first signs of imagination appear at around 18 to 20 months. Much play is still imitative, but a toddler starts to add imaginative flourishes: "feeding" Bunny, although she knows there's no food on the spoon; "talking on the phone," although she knows she's holding a wooden block; "driving" a toy truck, although she knows she's supplying the sound and power.

Around the age of 3, as a child starts playing in a group or attending preschool, more social themes emerge  -- pretending to be Mommy or The Teacher, for example.

From around age 5 through 7, children enter what Dorothy Singer, Ph.D., terms in her book, The House of Make Believe, "the high season of imaginative play," characterized by complex role playing  -- pretending to be pirates or space explorers, for instance.

By the time a child enters second grade, this imaginative life seems to taper off. But, says Singer, "it just goes underground." Perhaps reading, structured activities, and games with rules edge out pretend play. Kids may nonetheless find outlets for their imagination through writing, acting, music, initiating elaborate social games, crafting toys, or playing on the computer.

Whether the highly imaginative child matures into an especially creative adult is still a matter of speculation; we have only artists' memories of their early fantasy lives as evidence. But decades of studying children at play has shown a clear link between make-believe and a dazzling repertoire of cognitive, social, and emotional skills.

Pretend Play, Real Therapy

When my older son, Chase, was in kindergarten, his teachers called me in to discuss his failure to comply with the rules. He wouldn't even play Candy Land, they said, without assigning a whole new logic to the game. He didn't want to answer the teacher's questions about the alphabet; he wanted her to answer his questions about space travel.

He was consumed, in fact, with plans to fly off to Gingkus, an imaginary planet "so far away you'd be old by the time your flying saucer got there," where there were "no rules except one  -- you can't rob anybody," and, of course, where there were no schools ("Any school would be blown to bits by Gingkus powder, which is a lot like dynamite").

I remember the Gingkus period vividly because I was so divided as to how to interpret it. On one hand, I worried that my kindergartner was becoming a sociopath; after all, his desire to escape this world did seem to hint at emotional maladjustment. On the other, I was awfully impressed with how thoroughly he'd constructed his utopia. Hence, my husband and I refused to let the school hold him back a year, as his teachers wanted, because we couldn't believe that a 5-year-old able to grasp the subtleties of lightspeed travel wouldn't at some point learn his ABCs.

We did, however, meet with the school psychologist, who observed Chase in action. He needs to feel as if he's in control somewhere, she told us, having been made aware that Chase's home rule had recently been threatened by the arrival of a baby brother. Let this fantasy play itself out; he's solving his own problem, she suggested.

She was right. The Gingkus fantasy was a form of therapy, an outlet where Chase could sort things out on his own. Now in second grade, he's so popular and cooperative that his younger sister taunts him for being a goody two-shoes.

So much of learning to be a social being is emotionally challenging  -- living with siblings, sharing and taking turns, accepting authority  -- that creative play becomes an exercise in wish fulfillment, offering the child a sense of resolution that he can't find in reality, says Charles Schaefer, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in Teaneck, NJ. "Playing out a fantasy is comforting because you regain a sense of power and control," he says.

Invisible Helpers

Most educators and child psychologists now accept imaginary worlds and people as positive coping mechanisms. But that wasn't always so  -- particularly when it came to imaginary playmates. As recently as the 1950s, a child who was talking, playing, and interacting with an invisible friend excited some concern.

The reason, says Marjorie Taylor, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, was that typically only disturbed or abused children saw therapists, and since many of those children had pretend companions, experts concluded that the tendency could be pathological.

But in a recent study of kids between the ages of 3 and 7, Taylor confirmed that an imaginary playmate is most likely the result of a healthy social sense and understanding. Taylor's and other studies have found that nearly half of all children have some sort of imaginary companion at some point.

Most children create these playmates not because they don't have real friends, but because they so enjoy having company, they'll make someone up if no one is around. Friends are fun. Friends are comforting. And friends can be protective. Taylor cites the example of a 7-year-old boy who, when walking home alone from school, summoned "Skateboard Guy" from his pocket. Skateboard Guy then grew to the child's size and entertained him with fantastic tricks all the way home, making what might have been a lonely, possibly scary walk into something that was exciting.

But what makes imaginary playmates especially intriguing, says Taylor, is that just conjuring them speeds the acquisition of an important understanding: that other people have thoughts of their own as well as beliefs that are not necessarily the same as yours. It's a critical social step that most kids reach by age 4 or 5, but highly imaginative children as young as 3 may grasp the concept. "There's a strong relationship between having an imaginary companion and having real social understanding," she says.

Practice Makes Perfect

Children use imaginary play not only to understand how other people behave but also to explore how they themselves might react in a new situation  -- on an airplane, in a new school, or with people they're not familiar with. Imaginary play lets kids test themselves so that they might emerge feeling triumphant, competent, and even heroic. Claire Golomb describes setting up a game for preschoolers where cloth fish were placed on a large blue blanket and the children were encouraged to "dive" to find the one with a magic token tucked inside. Spontaneously, several of the kids elaborated on the script by introducing sharks, sea monsters, and other complications  -- just so they might delight in conquering the challenges.

"Either they master the situation as is, or if it gets too hot, they can make the monster much smaller or deny the monster's existence," she says. This fosters other skills as well, such as the ability to discern between the possible and the impossible.

Trying on a variety of roles or scripting dramas where the outcome fulfills every conceivable desire offers a child what reality cannot, says Golomb: limitless exploration with no risk attached to the experimenting.

Origins of Intellect

Watching my 7-year-old daughter play with her friends, I'm struck by all that goes into their elaborate imaginative game of Secret Princesses: Kathryn and her friends are really princesses, masquerading as first-graders because an Evil Sorcerer took over their castle, which they escaped from by disguising themselves as regular kids in jeans. Secretly they have proof of their royalty  -- bejeweled crowns, glittering shoes, gowns  -- but they must not allow the Evil Sorcerer to guess their identities, because he'll lock them in The Tower forever...or until a prince comes along to rescue them.

As Dorothy Singer points out, in such a game, someone has to conceive of the framework in which everybody will be able to participate  -- the plot, the action sequence, the setting  -- which in turn requires that someone acquire knowledge of imaginary princesses  -- what they might look like, how they speak, and what befalls them in fairy-tale literature. The game is more likely to last if the imagery's rich, requiring everyone involved to embroider on it with scenes taken from all manner of media and experience. Unless everyone is willing to be intellectually flexible  -- willing to perceive a stick as a scepter or baby Ian as the brave and handsome prince  -- then the game, and the fun, will end.

Of all the cognitive skills imparted by this sort of play, the one Singer finds most striking "is that children who engage in it have much better vocabularies. They use more complex sentences, compound words, and adjectives, and more of the future tense." Because vocabulary is such a consistent predictor of how well a child will do in school, Singer sees this as the single greatest reason to nurture this type of imaginative play.

The Value of Play

Many experts believe our schools could be more effective if they structured curriculum around pretend play instead of repetitive lessons. Yet far from being a staple of a child's education, imaginative play is currently under siege  -- in many schools and homes.

"Children are either not encouraged or actively discouraged to flex their imagination," Singer laments, citing how daydreaming is typically mishandled. Often, "the teacher sends home a note, the parents get concerned, and then both may take steps to ensure the child has no free time for playing mind-wandering," she says.

Parents, eager to ensure their children's success, might overemphasize scholastic achievement and computer skills, commandeering what used to be free time  -- afternoons and weekends  -- to accomplish those ends. "Giving kids time to play, think, create, and take initiative about who they want to be," says Golomb, "is unfortunately on the back burner." In fact, play therapist Schaefer says he often must actually teach parents how to reinstate imaginative fun into their children's lives.

For parents witnessing a toddler's first foray into the world of make-believe  -- rushing a stuffed animal to the toilet, for instance  -- it seems impossible that we could ever repress anything so joyful, so entertaining. And yet I can picture myself, some four years hence, impatient for Ian to put aside his bear and learn to read, to add, to play by the rules. I can see it, because to a large extent, those are already the expectations I impose on my 7- and 8-year-olds.

Not that it's ever too late to jump-start imagination. "Set aside time to play one-on-one with your child, allowing him to direct you. It's a great way to understand him and to show him that you value play," says Schaefer, "for valuing play is what most adults need to learn."