The most common form of childhood fantasy is pretend play. A child’s first attempts at pretending are usually simple imitation. At about 15 to 18 months, the child may “drink” from an empty cup or pretend to go to sleep. But once he is able to use symbols in his thinking, the youngster may pretend there is a cup when none exists or pretend to lay a doll down to sleep.
Between two and three years old, your child will begin to build make believe games around real experiences such as shopping trips and television conversations. At this age, children are exploring their sexual identities. If you see your child alternate between male and female roles, do not be alarmed. Many children experiment in this way to learn what sex differences mean. Beyond the age of three, the child begins to identify more strongly with the parent of the same sex and most often emulated that role.
By the age of five or six, the child is more interested in people outside the home, and you will see the role playing become more realistic and complex. Now a number of characters may take part in the same story. Police, fireman, ambulance drivers and helicopters pilots may all be called in to help in an imagined disaster.
Pretend play will often focus on your child’s awareness of his place in the world. Children have little control over their lives, yet their desire for control is great. By playing superhero, monster or wizard, your child creates a scene where he is the master. By acting the part of a school crossing guard, the child gets to tell Mom and Dad when to stop. Children crave such reversals.
Youngsters also pretend play to help them understand troubling experiences. When a new sibling arrives, for example, watch your older child’s play for clues about feelings. She may express anger and jealously by scolding or spanking a doll – or by throwing it across the room. The child probably knows that she could never treat the baby that way. But acting out a fantasy like this releases built-up tension and lets a child find out how it feels to give way to emotions. It is probably best not to interfere at such a moment. But afterward, ask the child to talk about what is bothering her, and sympathetically explain the reality of the situation if it is something – like a new baby – that cannot be changed.
Unpleasant memories and fears can sometimes be mastered through fantasy. Children who are frightened by animals or who develop a fear of doctors sometimes switch roles and pretend to be object of their fears. By assuming an active role in the drama and replaying real or imaginary scenes, the child takes control of the situation. You can encourage such play by providing the props – puppets, dolls, a toy doctor’s kit or some fanciful clothes to dress up in.