by Kathy Eugster, MA
Adults often feel uncomfortable engaging with children in imaginary or pretend play. Maybe we have forgotten how to play make-believe. Or, we may feel silly or immature if we get involved in imaginary play. We may even be laughed at by others when we play this way! This is unfortunate because playing together in an imaginary, pretend, or make-believe way raises the parent-child relationship to a whole new level of connection and positivity.
What is imaginary play?
In the most basic sense, you and your child will be:
- using your imaginations to make up different play scenarios that have various plots and outcomes, even if they become make-believe or fantastical
- using various toys or other objects to represent real-life or make-believe things or situations
- bringing to life various characters in the story by taking on the role and giving voice to those characters
When you wait for your child to invite you to join her in imaginary play (your child says, “Daddy you be the teacher.”), you are engaging in Child-Directed Playtime. When you initiate imaginary play with your child (you say, “Let’s play with your astronauts today and pretend they are going to explore a new planet.”), you are engaging in Parent-Directed Playtime. For more information, please see my Blog Wait! Imaginary Play for Only 10 Minutes?
I’ve put together some tips for you to help you get involved in imaginary play with your child.
- Keep in mind that objects do not necessarily need to look realistic, for example, a block could be a car, boat, or airplane. I recently had a great imaginary play with my 7-year-old granddaughter where three different small toy rakes represented three different children going on a school field trip and the teacher was yet another small toy rake!
- Model imaginary play behaviors by miming actions. Examples include pretending to drink out of a cup, eat food off a plate, comb hair, or brush teeth. You can even add sound effects, for example, like chewing noisily, slurping, or the sound of running water.
Role-playing a character
There are two ways you can role-play a character, either as yourself or through a toy.
- You can take on the role of a character directly yourself, for example, by pretending to be a doctor. Remember to use a first person point of view or narrative when you speak by saying something like, “Please come into my office and sit here; today I am going to give you a check-up.”
- You can also take on the role of a character indirectly through a toy, for example, by picking up and giving voice to a puppet, stuffed animal, or miniature person or creature. Give a voice to the character using a first person point of view as you hold and move the object representing the character. For example, you could hold onto a miniature dinosaur, move it around and give voice to the dinosaur by saying, “Hmm, I’m looking for something to eat … Oh maybe over there … I’m hungry!”
Giving voice to a character
You can change your normal voice fairly easily to match a particular character by making your voice higher, lower, faster, slower, louder, or quieter. If you want, you can even add accents to a character’s voice.
With puppets, put your hand into the puppet and open and close the puppet’s mouth in time and synchronized with the syllables of the words you say for the puppet. For example, to make your puppet say “Hi, my name is Brownie” do the following: open as you say “Hi” then close; open as you say “my” then close; open as you say “name” then close; open as you say “is” then close; open as you say “Brown-” then close; open as you say “-ie” then close.
Portraying different characters
There are so many opportunities for you to take on different roles in imaginary play. This is an excellent way to help your child learn about the real world. Here are just a few examples:
- Example #1: Children often like it, if they are portraying a character in danger, for you to take on the role of a wise person or protector and warn their character of danger. For example, your child is moving her doll very close to the edge of the couch, you could take on the role of the wise person and say something like, “Oh, be careful! … Don’t get too close to the edge … Stay back … Sit down … Oh no, you might fall if you get closer!”
- Example #2: Children love it when parents portray a role they can identify with, like a small or vulnerable character. For example, you could put a miniature person under a pillow and say something like, “Help! … I’m trapped under here … help me … I’m stuck!”
- Example #3: You can role-model appropriate behaviors to help your child learn about feelings and develop coping skills through your character. For example, you could take hold of a stuffed animal and say something like, “Okay, I’m feeling really nervous. That sound scared me. What can I do? I’ll take some deep breaths to calm down … Breath in … Breath out … Okay, I’m feeling better now.”
- Example #4: Children also love it when adults portray a character as incompetent, clumsy, or bumbling. This can be very comical and engaging for kids. For example, you can have your dinosaur character trip and fall into a hole and say, “Whoops! Where did that hole come from!”
- Example #5: When playing a scary, dangerous or “bad” character, you can exaggerate emotions and personality traits to engage your child. For example, you could pretend to be an angry dragon and, as you move the dragon around, you could say aggressively, “Ack, ack, ack, I’m coming to get you! … Look out! … Here I come!” However, don’t over-exaggerate emotions, which may frighten or over-arouse your child. Always observe your child’s reaction to your character, and adjust your emotional intensity accordingly.
- Example #6: Children often like it when parents play a character that is “sneaky” or a “trickster”, devising cunning schemes intended to deceive, cheat, or outwit someone. For example, your character could say something like, “Ha ha, I’m going to trick them and hide the gem here!”
One final point for you:
Don’t take over the play! Let your child come up with ideas for how the play unfolds, even if it may not be the way you want it to unfold. And remember not to correct your child unless things become unsafe or destructive. Your child learns so much about the real world through imaginary play. Take advantage of the above tips so that you can join in your child’s special imaginary play world. Even though it may feel awkward for you, your child will love it!
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2022.
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