With the help of a frilly dress, tiara, and magic wand, your
3-year-old is transformed into the queen of a magical universe where her
hobby horse is a winged unicorn. When you're asked to taste the pink
clouds, you agree that they're a lot like bubblegum.
Your son pulls a sheet over his shoulders and runs as fast as he can
across the lawn. The air lifts the fabric; your boy's legs leap into the
air. "I'm flying, mommy!" the 4-year-old says. He's a superhero, out to
save the backyard from dragons lurking behind the bushes and find
treasure buried in the sandbox.
Parents of preschoolers have a front row seat to some of the most
imaginative theater ever produced. These are the so-called "magic years"
- when a child's brain is developed enough to imagine grand stories but
not yet complex enough to reason the way adults do and ask, "But can
that really happen?"
Here's why imagination is so important and what you can do to foster these magic years.
How Preschoolers View the World
There's a lot that very young children aren't yet able to grasp about
the world around them. As a result, they "fill in the blanks" and often
make up their own sometimes magical explanations for how things work.
This time, which peaks during the preschool years, was dubbed "the
magic years" by child development expert Selma Fraiberg, PhD, in 1959
when she wrote a book of the same name.
Babies use their senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound) to
explore their world. As they develop, they begin to understand the basic
function of things ("If I push this button, the pony will pop out of
Now, as preschoolers, they take this knowledge and combine it with a
growing imagination to come up with fantastical ideas about why and how
things happen. As kids go through the magic years, fantasy will move to
reality as they further fine-tune their understanding of the world.
Take, for example, the vacuum cleaner. A 2-year-old might throw a
tantrum because he fears that, just as the dog hair got sucked up off
the carpet, he will too. But a year or two later, instead of collapsing
into tears, he might pretend he's being chased by the vacuum "monster" -
and gain confidence from knowing that it will never get him.
By age 6 or so, children are becoming aware that any fears of being
swallowed up by a vacuum are irrational - there's no way your entire
body can be sucked up that little tube! - and instead might want to take
control and do the vacuuming on their own.
In this situation, the boy used his imagination to help him get over
his fears. This scenario is repeated again and again, as the monsters in
the closet suddenly disappear with the help of a brain that is
beginning to learn how to differentiate between the possible and the impossible.
Pretend play lets kids try out new roles for themselves (like
superheroes, princesses, wild animals, or even parents) and allows for
creative problem-solving. But it also helps them deal with another
hurdle of the preschool years: intense emotions. Baby dolls might be put
in "time out" and scolded for actions suspiciously similar to your
little one's latest offense. An imaginary friend (who's a bigger
troublemaker than your child ever could be) might be conjured up to help
your child deal with feelings of guilt and remorse following a moment
of lost control, such as hitting a playmate.
Self-control is a tough skill to learn, and pretend play helps kids practice it as well as play out the frustration it creates.
Learn more about the Magic of Play.