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The Magic of Make-Believe

My living room is a disaster area.

I mean this literally: There's a sinking ship, and drowning passengers are flung far and wide, except for the lucky few who've made it into the laundry basket -- or rather, the lifeboat. Some small stuffed animals have been tucked into sandwich bags on the wall-to-wall blue carpet -- the wide blue sea.

"How the heck do you expect me to make lunches today if you use up my sandwich bags?" I demand.

Aidan, my 5-year-old, looks up from the couch, where he's currently conducting emergency rescue operations.

"But Mom, this is the Titanic!" he wails. "The passengers need those bags or they won't be able to breathe!"

I look again. I see it now: The bags are life preservers, enabling passengers to float safely to the sofa. I sigh and go back to the kitchen. I can always use waxed paper.

Imaginative play can be very messy business. It's also an essential ingredient for a happy childhood. Research proves that kids who are encouraged to pretend are more expressive, empathetic, and socially adept than those who aren't, and they may continue to be creative as adults. And you can get something out of diving into your little one's fantasy world too. "Adults tend to dismiss the urge to daydream as impractical or unproductive," says Dorothy Singer, a research psychologist at Yale University. "But playing make-believe games with our kids helps keep that sense of magic alive for us as well."

Holly Robinson is a mom of five in Massachusetts.

Not Just For Fun

When Betty Faris of Cambridge, Massachusetts, saw her 2-year-old son playing with dolls at a friend's house, she thought it was a little odd that he was telling them to go to the bathroom. So she listened closely -- the dolls were scared to use the toilet -- and finally understood how anxious he was about potty training.

Through pretend play, kids mull over complex issues: love and power, control and loss of it, sickness and strength, friends and enemies. You're not alone if seeing some of these big issues play out in your 3-year-old's games freaks you out a little. It can help to know that it's not only normal but also healthy for kids to express negative emotions and actions through made-up games. In fact, by observing your child's pretend world or -- even better -- stepping into it, you'll gain more insight into what she's going through.

When Jack Fournier of West Newbury, Massachusetts, was 3, he invented a brother named Little Jack. His mom, Phoebe Adams, obliged by including his new brother in all of their family events -- he had a place at the dinner table and a special seat in the car -- since she knew Jack was struggling with being an only child (most of his friends had siblings).

Aidan's imagination proved to be the best tool for conquering his fear of the dark. One night, as I tucked him into bed, he said, "Mom, I know there aren't really any monsters, but I always think little monster heads are going to come in through my window." That vivid image stopped me. I wouldn't want little monster heads coming in through my window, either. As we talked about what we could do to scare these creatures away, he hit upon a solution: We put Aidan's giant stuffed fish, a rather fierce-looking salmon, between himself and one wall, and a giant stuffed dog on his other side. He knew they were just toys, but in his mind, no monster would dare mess with them!

When you join your child in fantasy play, try to take a supporting role rather than direct the activities -- even if you're the one who's initiating them. By following her lead, you'll get the best sense of what she's thinking, and you'll enjoy seeing where it takes you both.

Pretend play, age by age

Babies They can't play make-believe yet, but face-to-face contact with Mom helps to give infants a sense of the world, paving the way for creativity.

Toddlers Between 1 and 2 years, kids dabble in simple imitation, such as feeding a teddy bear with a spoon.

Preschoolers As kids approach 3, they need fewer realistic props and some team up with imaginary friends for comfort and companionship. Since children aren't old enough to feel self-conscious about it, their fantasy world, with complex scenarios and characters, often plays out in front of you.

Kindergartners By now, most kids can develop, direct, and follow short imaginative scripts, playing different roles: "Okay," one will say, "this time you be the dragon and I'll be the frog." They also tend to incorporate their pretending into everyday activities (like continuing a monster game by growling during lunch) so that they won't have to stop the fun.

Schoolkids Many older kids use make-believe in more subtle ways because it can be embarrassing to be caught pretending to be Batman or even a doctor or firefighter. Your child might write stories about heroes instead of act them out, or not let you in on his secret-agent status when you're shopping at the mall. So even though you may see less make-believe play, his imagination is alive and well.

Unleashing Your Family's Imagination

"I thought I'd always have time to play with my kids," says Kate Krautkramer of Yampa, Colorado, whose two children are 5 and 3. The reality for Krautkramer, however, is the gritty truth for many moms: "I spend so much time working, cleaning, and taking care of other things necessary to our lives that I don't have much time to just have fun with them."

Take heart. Whether you have ten minutes or all of Saturday afternoon, you can easily incorporate fantasies into chores, errands, and daily routines like meals and bathtime. Some ways to let your imagination run wild:

Encourage daydreaming. With many preschools focusing more on academics and kids taking part in organized sports and activities at younger ages than ever, parents need to try to build in some old-fashioned, unstructured free time.

Melinda Misuraca of Healdsburg, California, limits her three daughters' TV and computer time as a way to push them to learn how to amuse themselves. "I try to encourage my kids to be self-sufficient during their free time. They read or come up with games to play with each other, which has helped them become more imaginative," says Misuraca.

Create play spaces. On each floor of Betty Faris's three-story house, there's an area with arts-and-crafts supplies for her son, 9, and daughter, 6. These spots include shelves stocked with construction paper, jars filled with pens and markers, and shoe boxes brimming with beads and clay. "This way, they can help themselves anytime, whether they're in the mood to make up games or just draw pictures," says Faris.

Other simple, inexpensive items to keep on hand:

  • Large cardboard boxes. No need to break the bank for a wooden puppet theater, and once your children tire of putting on puppet shows, they can transform that box into a spaceship, a submarine, or a bus.
  • Old scarves, to help your kids pretend to be airplanes or ballerinas.
  • Tattered maps, to find buried treasure.

Feed your own fantasies. To enjoy make-believe games with your family, you need to summon enough energy to cut loose from reality yourself. Instead of composing to-do lists in your head, let your mind wander when you're waiting to pick up the kids from practice or fantasize while you're falling asleep.

Take a walk down memory lane. As you play with your kids, you may remember made-up games you played as a child. Share them with your children, as Cynthia Anderson, who lives in London, does. When she reads her favorite childhood stories to her two kids, ages 5 and 2, she's reminded of how she once played out those stories with her friends.

Turn work into fantasy play. You might think that playing make-believe with your child will eat up time you don't have, but in my experience, the opposite is true. When I'm cooking dinner, the surest way to keep Aidan from stirring up trouble is to let him pretend to be a kitty: I lay out a sleeping bag for him to curl up in, and he meows and plays with "cat toys" that I hand him from the kitchen drawers while I'm frying or baking or peeling. And when I'm exhausted at the end of the day, I often lie on the couch and act like I'm wounded (not far from the truth). Aidan tends to me by wrapping dish towels around my various bleeding or broken limbs.

However, it's important to recognize when kids are using make-believe to try to bargain with you or manipulate you, says Marjorie Taylor, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. After all, you can't skip the grocery store or a trip to the pediatrician's office just because Nobby the No-Nose Troll hates to ride in the car.

Be part of the show. As fertile as their creativity is, kids need and love inspiration from you. Anderson and her family make up a story together at least once a week over dinner. "We dim the lights and burn candles to set the mood," says Anderson. "Either my husband or I start, and then our two boys each have a chance to add to the tale before it goes back to the other parent to be finished."

As your children get older, with your encouragement they'll be able to move off on their own, creating lively and exciting new worlds for themselves. Meanwhile, enjoy the fun. Just like Aidan, Phoebe Adams's son, Jack, has scared away many monsters and saved drowning animals from shipwrecks -- and she's done her part. "Sitting in a life raft of pillows with a crew of stuffed animals," she says, "has been, without a doubt, one of my most significant accomplishments as a mom."