A child’s imagination has no bounds. He plays dress up with a spoon as his wand and a scarf as his cape, bounding from one pillow to another, pretending to fly. Yet, more often than not we tend to direct his play into something ‘constructive’. We find his childish games of pretence wasteful and insist on engaging him with games that impart concrete lessons.
The truth, however, is that while children talk to their imaginary friends, build up enchanted forests, hold tea parties or recreate an action sequence with cars and guns; they are learning vital lessons which will equip them for adulthood. Adults with enhanced critical thinking had an imaginative childhood where perhaps they jumped from one cushion to another avoiding the burn of hot lava.
Here are 5 reasons to encourage fantasy play in your child
Develops Language Skills
Imaginative play, unlike video games or board games, requires children to invent stories. They learn how to translate their thoughts into play so they can be enacted. This powerful skill helps them connect their thoughts, words and actions which holds them in good stead in adulthood.
Teaches them Empathy
As children engage in pretend play, they respond to characters and imaginative situations which teaches them compassion, empathy and understanding of other’s feelings. They experiment with social and emotional roles and understand how to look at a situation from another’s point of view.
So, when your child wants to leave milk and cookies as Santa might be hungry, you might find it a waste but do indulge her as she is showing concern for him. These tiny moments help your child develop skills like thoughtfulness and empathy that are very important in today’s world of nuclear and often single-child families.
Understands How to Solve Problems
Children caught in the land of make-believe, make plans, process ideas, regulate their reactions and negotiate with others. This develops the frontal lobe of the brain that regulates behaviour. Without a set book of instructions, children navigate themselves through different scenarios through visualisation and creativity. As adults, this is a crucial skill in problem solving.
So when your child is bored and you leave everything to actively entertain him, remember you are doing him a small dis-service.
Teaches Social Skills
Children especially toddlers have little self-control. They also have a self-centric approach to everything. During pretend play, children have to role play and define boundaries especially if it involves other children.
Allow them to express themselves, even if they are engaging in rough games. They will learn to regulate their aggression and build appropriate strategies to include others in their play. Imagine how cooperative yet self-assured the adult would turn out to be if he effectively understood how to resolve conflicts with others in such a safe zone of pretend play.
Build Self-Esteem and Independence
As adults, we are accustomed to looking down upon children and giving instructions. We constantly guide them, teach them norms of appropriate behaviour and nudge them into the 'correct' manner to entertain themselves.
But when they pretend play, they are the masters of their own world. So something trivial like caring for a sick stuffed animal, secretly talking to their tooth fairy or even something as inane as throwing an imaginary ball; gives them control of the situation. Being the narrators of their story rather than being told what to do or say, liberates them and builds their confidence in self.
Especially when children are shy or going through an awkward phase, encouraging them with the presence of their own fairy or imaginary friend makes them feel extra special. Creating a safe space which need not involve parents, teaches them to speak of their fears and anxiety. Studies show that children who learn to express themselves without judgement in childhood are more likely to be secure teens and adults.
As parents, we are accustomed to structuring our child’s childhood with scheduled activities. Real education is helping your child process ideas and think for themselves.
Encourage them to express their creativity with toys and activities that spark imagination (refer to our next blog on How to Create A Safe Play Space to Encourage Imaginative Play). And even allow them to express their feelings with the help of fairies, tooth fairies and Santa.
So, the next time you see your child engage in pretend play, don’t hurry them to do their homework, finish chores or practice their spellings. Give them a few more hours to be Peter Pan, mechanics, chefs, hairdressers or adventurers exploring new planets. Or gift them a fairy behind their DOOR.