Sometime between three and four years old, the child reaches a fifth stage, making dramatic leap in her ability to use ideas. She begins to experiment with her concepts about emotions and tries to mimic reality in pretend play. Now the bear might receive undivided attention throughout an elaborate reenactment of the child’s own evening routine. There is dinner, a bath, then sympathy and help when the bear has trouble putting on his night clothes. The game might continue with a bedtime story and tender words of love as the bear is tucked into bed. The child has begun to use pretend play as a testing ground for emotional expression, manipulating ideas in search of a cause and effect understanding. In essence, she is connecting emotional ideas in the same easy that grownups do. She has begun to think about feelings in an organized way. Now at three or four, the child not only understands that certain actions are wrong, but also experiences feelings of shame arising from her own misbehavior. Even if she only imagines a jealous assault upon a sibling, she may find herself suddenly stricken with pangs of guilt. As she learns the difference between “me” and “you.” She sees that the limits one imposes by her parents are now coming from with. In pretend play she may practice her newfound acceptance of limits by finding cause to discipline one of her dolls. As your child gains experience socially and practices this new skill of self imposed limits, he begins to appreciate shades and nuances of emotion. He discovers that sometimes he has to let the context be his guide in deciding how to express his feelings. Shouting angrily at a playmate is different from shouting at the teacher in nursery school. He also learns that every expression of emotion will produce an emotional reaction in response. If he tells you that the lasagna tastes terrible, your face may look exasperated or hurt. But if he screams out “Mama, I hate you,” your face will very likely look either devastated or mad. When your child was just six months ole he learned that his action could produce a response. Now he sees that his ideas can have the same effect.
To recognize the other stages of this learning process, it helps to focus on your child’s pretend play. A second stage commences at about two years. In play, your child may have her teddy bear ask for a hug, then let a doll embrace the bear in response. In this simple exchange, the child moves beyond using ideas merely to state a demand. Now there is the idea of the teddy bear’s demand plus the idea that the doll fulfills a role in responding to that need. At this stage the child might say ‘daddy, apple juice’ rather than just blurting our “juice, juice.’ At two and half, the child’s play is characterized by a random stream of ideas without concern for the kinds of constraints that adults take for granted. Logic, sequential time, cause and effect- all of these are missing. In the course of 10 minutes, the teddy bear might get in a fight, fall asleep on a lumpy bed of building blocks, fly on a plane one tenth his sixe and try to play a harmonica. Whatever occurs to the child is what happens next. Whatever props are nearby becomes part of the game. In this third level, the child is using a lot of ideas, but the ideas have little apparent connection. In the fourth level, around the age of three, the child starts to fill in the first of those missing connections. Now the teddy bear may be seated in company at a rather elaborate tea party. The child’s play begins to follow a somewhat more organized theme. Moment to moment details are still decided spontaneously, but there is an underlying plan and a unifying emotional thread that keeps the part on track. The child’s feelings about taking care of her imaginary guest keep the game organized.
Some children communicate ideas quite well with gestures before their language skills bloom. At two and half, a child night tug at Mothers blouse and point to the baby, thereby telling her that it is time for baby brother to nurse. Working only with gestures, the child shows concern for the baby.
Another way that your child might first use ideas is through the spatial patterns that he devises when playing with his toys. A child who organizes a long, straight line of toy cars clearly has a preconceived mental picture that gives structure to his game. When the child opens a gate in a wall of blocks and drives car through, she is demonstrating yet another idea.
As a parent, it is important for you to recognize your child’s ability to deal with abstract concepts, no matter what form of expression that ability takes. Whether he first uses language, gestures, spatial relationships or pretend play to express his ideas, you will want to encourage this development: using ideas to manage feelings is an important milestone on the road to emotional maturity. It is a skill your child must master in order to bring the raw, self centered impulses of his early childhood under control and to learn to live harmoniously with other.
The capacity to use ideas does not emerge full blown overnight. It develops in stages that you can observe. In the first stage which typically begins at about 18 months the child will employ ideas simply to communicate something she wants. She may use words to ask for apple juice, gesture for her favorite blanket or tug at your leg for a hug.
Using the new words she is learning, she labels her ideas with names. This allows her to plan more complex actions, combining two or more related ideas. At two and a half, for example, the child spies a favorite toy that is up too high to reach. She Calles out to mother, then points and says” want it” when mother arrives. The child has identifies a need, formed an idea of the solution to that need, combined the idea with her concept of mother, then put her ideas into words. She was, in short, used her mind to solve a problem. When the child tells you she is scared, happy or mad, she is summarizing all that she has felt and observed about those emotion. With experience, her understanding will be greatly refined, but by the simple act of applying the correct label to her feelings, she has acquired a powerful tool for organizing her emotional life.
The use of language is the most obvious way that a child reveals newfound conceptual abilities. But different children arrive at this stage with different tools as their disposal. Some children first show their use of ideas through fantasies and pretend play. Earlier, the child learned that you draw with a crayon and drink from the cup. Not she makes these objects part of her make believe games. Her toy bear sits with her in front of the coloring book and is allotted a share of the crayons. Later the child offers the bear a sip from her empty cup. She is showing the ability to use ideas. When the child lavishes care or affection on the toy animal, she has evidently abstracted her own need for care and formed an idea about love.