Why is it important to encourage imagination?
The first few years of your child's life are extremely important. All the things you and your toddler do together, from reading, singing, and playing to eating and walking, help to jump-start his brain.
Involving your toddler in stimulating activities helps to create connections in his brain. Through repetition, these connections build into networks in his brain that allow him to think and learn.
This is an important time in your toddler's mental development because his brain is much denser than it will be when he's older. A connection that's used repeatedly becomes permanent, while connections that are hardly used may not survive.
As you expose your toddler to new experiences, you open his mind to a bigger, more exciting world. By encouraging him to use his imagination ("Look, Mummy's a tiger in the jungle!"), you spark his brain to forge "imagination pathways" of its own.
How can I help my toddler develop his imagination?
You can help to spark your toddler's fantasy life by reading picture books about unfamiliar people and places together. While your toddler's naturally imaginative, these will help to broaden his vocabulary of words and images, too. (How can you imagine being a turtle if you've never seen one?)
Choose books with lots of big, colourful pictures. You can make up anything you want before your toddler learns to read and insists on sticking strictly to the text.
What his brain wants now is input. Show your toddler pictures of everything from beetles to dinosaurs.
Make sounds for animals and vehicles, too. Use special voices for the different characters and talk about what happened or might happen to the characters. Try to limit TV and DVDs, which create ready-made imaginary worlds for him. Instead, allow your toddler's mind more scope to create pictures on its own.
Can I make up stories for my toddler?
Hearing you tell your own made-up stories is just as good, and maybe even better, for your toddler. As well as giving lots of scope for his imagination, they'll demonstrate how to create characters and plots. And using your child as the main character is a great way to expand his sense of himself.
Soon enough, your toddler will start coming up with his own stories and adventures. He may start by copying you at first because that's how children learn. As his imagination develops, the inventiveness of his scenarios will astound you.
What sort of props will encourage my toddler's imagination?
Almost anything can be a prop for imaginative play.
Towels can become turbans, plastic beads can become precious jewels. Your toddler's mound of stuffed animals transforms itself into an animal hospital or farm.
The best props for imaginative play are often simple ones. As most of the action takes place inside your child's head, detailed costumes, such as those specific to particular movie characters, aren't that helpful. A Batman suit can only be a Batman suit. But with a plain hat and towel, your child can be lots of different characters.
The best way to ensure he has lots of ideas is to expose your child to as many real people (of all ages), places and events as possible.
Give your toddler a special box or basket to hold dressing-up bits and pieces. It will make imaginative games even more exciting, especially if you restock when he's not looking ("Let's see what's in the box today!"). By popping in two of any particular favourites, you'll ensure fewer squabbles when friends or siblings join in.
What will my toddler learn through pretend play?
Children learn a lot from dramatising their daily, and fantasy, lives.
When your toddler invents a scenario, plot and characters ("I'm the daddy and you're the baby and you're sick"), he develops social and verbal skills. By replaying scenarios that involve feeling sad, happy or frightened, he'll work out emotional issues.
Imagining that he's a superhero or a wizard makes him feel powerful. It teaches him that he's in charge and that he can be anyone he wants. Try not to ask your child too many questions about what they're doing. Instead, make comments, such as, "Wow, you look like you're on a spaceship!" This allows his imagination to take the direction he wants, rather than following you.
Your toddler's also practising self-discipline as he makes the rules up himself or with a friend. He also learns about cause and effect as he imagines how a frog or a dog would behave in a particular situation.
Perhaps most important of all, by creating imaginary situations and following them through, your child learns to solve problems. It's thought that lots of imaginative play at a young age can help your child to grow up to become a better problem-solver. So rest assured that all those hours spent on the carpet pretending to be animals is far from wasted time. It may help your toddler to cope with challenges and difficult situations when he's older, such as what to do if he finds he's forgotten a book he needs for school that day.
How messy should I let my toddler be?
Imagination is a messy business, there's no doubt about it.
Pretending to be Hansel and Gretel means a trail of crumbs through the living room.
Crossing the crocodile-infested river by stepping only on the cushions (or rocks!) means pulling the sofa apart.
Having a few quick strategies for minimising mess helps a lot. For instance, old shirts worn backwards with the sleeves cut off make great smocks. You can also save table tops by insisting on plastic sheeting under a play-dough construction site. And use large sheets of lining paper to cover the table (or the floor or the walls) to prevent multicoloured splodges and splashes.
Is it fine to set limits on their imaginative play?
Setting limits (not using the "swords" for hitting) and enforcing them is crucial for you and your child.
And while imaginary friends are fine, you shouldn't worry too much if your toddler starts blaming the friend for something he did. It's best simply to praise your child when he owns up to something but not to pay too much attention when he is dishonest.
If and when you can, let your toddler live for a bit with the reminders of his flight of fancy. If the kitchen table is currently an igloo, you've got the perfect excuse to have a pretend picnic on the living room floor!
How can I avoid fights over my toddler's imaginary play?
When your toddler begs to wear his spaceman outfit to nursery for the fourth day in a row, you may be in two minds. Adults are used to obeying social rules, and rules that are just downright practical.
So, after four days the spaceman outfit is likely to need a wash, never mind how suitable it is as daily wear. But toddlers don't think this way.
When you find yourself forcing a confrontation ("You have to take off your spaceman outfit off now"), remember that your toddler doesn't have these boundaries yet. And that's fine. Rather than being lost in some fantasy world, he's just in playing mode. As adults, we think in terms of what we want to get done in a given time.
We also worry about what others think, which can lead to feelings of embarrassment.
We learn these habits because they help us to get along in society. In that sense, they're positive. But they tend to work against a free-floating imagination. In other words, although you may not realise it, as a parent you're carrying a lot of baggage. And it pays to be aware of this when dealing with your child. Toddlers are free spirits because they haven't yet learned to worry about not being productive or looking silly. Lucky them!
What can I do next to encourage my toddler's imagination?
Part of developing an imagination is learning to share it. And the best way to help your toddler move to this next step is by being a good listener. Toddlers' verbal skills aren't great, of course, but they get better with practise.
Try trading off lines of a story. So while you're driving, say, "Once upon a time there was a dog. He lived with a little boy named Tom and one day ..." Then give your toddler a turn. If he's not up to a whole line, he can still join in. Ask him to name the little boy's dog.
When your toddler draws a picture, encourage him to tell you what's going on in it. Instead of saying "What a beautiful house!", say "What lovely colours! What's this here?"
Pretending allows your toddler to be anyone he wants to be, to practise what he's learned, and to make things come out the way he'd like. By listening to him you can stay in tune with what he's thinking.
Who knows? You might even revitalise your own imagination in the process.