Although you could sit by and watch the fun, it's even better if you join in now and then. "A preschooler's imagination develops naturally, but there's a lot you can do to spark it," says Kristi Alexander, a pediatric psychologist at Alliant International University in San Diego. "As you expose her to new sights, sounds, and sensations, you open her mind to a bigger world." At each stage of your child's imaginative development, listening to her and taking part in her games (when you're welcome, of course) will help you keep up with what she's thinking. And who knows? You might revitalize your own imagination in the process.
Improving vocabulary. Children who play imaginary games or listen to lots of fairy tales, stories read aloud from books, or tales spun by those around them tend to have noticeably better vocabularies.
Taking control. Pretending lets your preschooler be anyone he wants, practice things he's learned, and make situations turn out the way he wants. Stories where the brave little boy thwarts the evil witch or playacted fantasies of being the one to rescue his fellow pirates from that sinking ship give him a sense that he can be powerful and in control even in unfamiliar or scary situations.
Learning social rules. Getting along socially can be tricky at any age. When your preschooler joins the other kids in the sandbox to create a castle out of sand, sticks, and leaves, she's not only exploring a fantasy world, she's learning complex, real-world rules about sharing, social interaction, and resolving conflicts.
Solving problems. Dreaming up imaginary situations teaches your child to think creatively in real life. Whether at school or at home, it's often adults who decide what children will do and how they'll do it, and it's adults who solve any problems that arise. But in play, kids decide what to do and how to do it (how to capture the monster, for example), and how to solve problems (anything from what to do about Bobby's skinned knee to how to include a pouty playmate who feels left out).
What you can do to spark your preschooler's imagination
Share stories. Telling your own made-up stories is just as good for your child's imagination as reading a book together. Not only will your tales provide a sense of possibilities for his inventive thinking, they'll demonstrate the basics of creating characters and plots. And using your child as the main character is a great way to expand his sense of self.
Before long, your preschooler will offer her own narratives and adventures. In fact, because her understanding of the difference between reality and fantasy is still limited, she may occasionally make up a wild story she fully expects everyone to believe. Play along and enjoy her creativity — as long as it's all in good fun. If your child is frightening herself with a scary tale (e.g., there's a monster in her closet), put on the brakes and clarify what's real and what's not.
Another idea: Trade off lines of a story. While you're driving, say to her, "Once upon a time there was a dog. She lived with a little girl, and they liked to go to the park. One day..." Then give your child a turn. Let her tell the fun parts, like naming the girl and the dog and describing the climax and the ending.
Relish her artwork. For most preschoolers, exploration of materials is the most important aspect of making art. So as she works with the supplies you've given her — water, clay, sand, dough, paints, papers, buttons, ribbons — respect the process. For her, a piece of cardboard glued onto some colored paper is a good enough result. She doesn't want or need to hear that her finished puppet "should look like this."
Even "pictures" at this point will be largely lines and shapes on the page, though by age 4 many kids start dabbling in representational drawing. When your preschooler draws a picture, rather than trying to guess what it is (unless she's a budding Rembrandt, chances are you'll guess wrong anyway), ask her to interpret it for you. Instead of "What a beautiful house!" say, "What cool colors you've used! What's happening in this picture?"
Make music. Although your child probably isn't ready for structured piano lessons, you can still fill her world with music. Listen to a variety of tunes together, and encourage her to participate by singing, dancing, or playing homemade or toy instruments. She can follow along with a song being played, or make up her own, complete with lyrics. (Be sure to have a video or audio recorder on hand!)
Encourage pretend play. Children learn a lot from dramatizing events from their daily — and fantasy — lives. When your preschooler invents a scenario and plot line and peoples it with characters ("I'm the daddy and you're the baby and you're sick"), he develops social and verbal skills. He'll work out emotional issues as he replays scenarios that involve feeling sad, happy, frightened, or safe. Imagining himself as a superhero, a horse, or a wizard makes him feel powerful and gives him a sense of what it's like to be in charge. And he develops his understanding of cause and effect as he imagines how you or his friend or his cat would behave in a particular situation. He's also exploring the world of discipline, since he's making the rules, either by himself or with the help of a playmate (the array of intricate rules kids come up with always astounds adults).
Provide props. Towels become turbans, plastic bracelets become precious jewels, old bathroom rugs turn into magic carpets, and that moth-eaten collection of stuffed animals transforms itself into a rain forest, animal hospital, or farm. Because preschoolers love to take on the role of someone else — a parent, a baby, a pet — a simple object like a toy cash register or a chalkboard can be all that's needed to spark creative play. Since most of the action takes place inside your child's head, the best props are often generic, and detailed costumes modeled after specific cartoon characters or action figures aren't really the ticket here.
Providing a special box or trunk to hold pretending paraphernalia can make fantasy play even more of an adventure, especially if you occasionally restock when your child's not looking ("Let's see what's in the trunk today!"). Including more than one of the same item can help, too, since two pirates or princesses are always better than one.
Use the computer judiciously. Just because tech companies are churning out software for kids doesn't mean your child will turn out computer-illiterate if she doesn't do daily computer time. Still, there are some quality programs for preschoolers that can spark your child's imagination, from drawing, painting, and music software to virtual treasure hunts. And the Internet can be an invaluable resource for looking up topics of interest — hunting down the latest photos of Jupiter or colorful pictures of a coral reef — and for exposing your child to different cultures and ideas from around the world.
Limit TV time. When it comes to your child's TV viewing, less is better. There are some excellent programs out there that teach kids, say, how a baby kangaroo behaves or how other kids their age live in Japan, and you can record shows to provide quality programming at convenient times. But don't overdo it.
Movies and TV shows tend to limit a budding imagination since they do the visualizing for your child. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children aged 2 and over stick to no more than one to two hours of entertainment media per day. Resist the temptation to use TV as an electronic babysitter; instead, sit and watch along with her, posing questions, expanding on ideas presented in the show or movie, and finding out what strikes her as most interesting.
How to live with your preschooler's imagination
Accept her imaginary friend. Experts believe that having an imaginary friend is a sign of a creative, social child who's found a way to help manage her own fears or concerns. Some studies suggest as many as half of kids have an imaginary pal at some point.
However, if your child starts blaming the buddy for something she did, it's time for a reality check. You don't need to accuse her of lying, but do address the behavior. Have your child, along with the imaginary sidekick, rectify the situation (clean up the mess, apologize, etc.) and make it clear the act was unacceptable.
Keep messes manageable. Yes, reenacting the story of Hansel and Gretel might lead to a trail of crumbs through the living room. If you have the space, it's a good idea to designate a room, or part of a room, as an arts and crafts corner, where your child is free to create without worrying about making a mess.
Some containment strategies can also help: Old button-down shirts make great smocks when worn backwards with the sleeves cut off, plastic sheeting under the Play-Doh construction site can protect the rug, and large sheets of butcher paper over the crafts table can prevent an encrusted layer of multicolored paints or glue.
Enjoy the offbeat. When your child wants to wear his space commander outfit to preschool for the third day in a row, it's tempting to say no. Adults are socialized to draw strict lines between "public" and "private" behavior — your funky gray sweatpants and rabbit slippers are fine around the house, but not at a restaurant — and it's hard to realize children don't think that way. But if you find yourself forcing a confrontation ("Take off your Halloween costume now"), remember that your preschooler doesn't recognize these boundaries yet, and consider letting it go. In the grand scheme of things, a kid in a kooky outfit may not be worth worrying about.