Imaginary play - Healthy or harmful?

The land of make-believe is the best destination for the world 's future novelists, scientists and inventors, writes Rochelle Gillespie.

One of the joys of parenting is that little moment when you realise you have front-row tickets to the greatest show on earth. You might walk past your child's room and spy him playing school with Ted and Mr Moon. Or you might give him a cardboard box, and watch the original Transformer -is it a plane? No,it's a train, and now an oven!

You'll first start to see your child engage in pretend play at around 18 months. It will begin with simple imitations of actions he sees around him every day. For instance, drinking from a pretend cup or holding a banana to his ear and pretending it's a phone. A child uses his imagination to work out the "what ifs?" of the world with an openness and innocence that we too often lose as adults.

To be a great thinker in adulthood you need to light the spark of imagination in infanthood. In doing so, you may be laying the groundwork for the next Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs or Charles Dickens.

Issue 19 Imagination 1Prof Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and author of The Philosophical Baby. She's one of the world's leading experts on the power of pretend play.

She believes that even the youngest children use the same techniques for learning about the world as the most brilliant scientists, and that they are more conscious of the world around them than adults are.

Alison and her research team have spent many hours devising experiments to test a child's ability at counter-factual thinking or, put simply, when you think about a possibility then work out the "what ifs?".

She says, if you give a child a machine and tell him to figure out how it works, he might go through seven different hypotheses in two minutes, but most adults would think of one, maybe two options, then stick with that until they make it work.

Issue 19 Imagination 2

It's the difference between explorer learning and exploit learning. Exploit learning is working out the best solution to the problem that's going to work right now, while explorer learning is just trying out options for the fun of it, and that's what under-fives are really good at.

It's also what scientists and inventors are really good at - using their brains to look at a problem from all angles. But for most of us, the closest we get to that child-like, uninhibited world of possibilities is when we travel to a foreign city. Alison says when things outside your comfort zone bombard your senses, you're forced to imagine possibilities.

Interestingly, the research shows that children do know the difference between what is real and what is not. Think about when you've had a teddy bears' tea party. No doubt you and your child used very elaborate, exaggerated gestures when drinking your "tea". Alison says this is a form of "pretendese" which children and adults use as a signal that they're now in a fantasy world, not a real world.

Setting the scene
Issue 19 Imagination 3 If you want to give your child the tools for some fabulous, philosophical, socially engaging pretend play then you should arm him with props that are open-ended and capture things that are going on in the world around them, says Alison.

"Good old-fashioned blocks are great because there's such a wide range of things children can pretend they are. Dolls and farm sets are great too because children are so interested in social play."

She also encourages parents to invest in a varied and fun-filled dress-up box from which you get "a great play value".

Give children toys that leave room for their own input and creativity. Some toys may appear to literally have all the bells and whistles, but they're actually a one-hit wonder. With a toy that does everything, there's not enough room for the child to explore his own imagination.

Issue 19 Imagination 4Another important tool is time away from others. Children need "me time" just as much as we do, to reflect and recharge.

While real pretend play doesn't begin until around 18 months of age, you can get your baby ready for such play with simple peek-a-boo toys. Farmyard books which encourage a child to imitate the sounds of a sheep or a cow are all encouraging early pretence.

Role reversal is another great form of pretend play that helps children understand relationships. Your child can be "Mum" and you act as the child. You'll often find that children are much tougher mums than you are in real life. But it's a useful way for them to think through why Mum is behaving this way.

And this child-like talent at acting a part is something we grown-ups can learn from. Are you guilty of falling into the "imposter syndrome"? Do you sometimes think to yourself, "I'm not really sure that I'm doing a great job as a mother, but I'm doing a darn good job of pretending like I am?" Well, that's not such a bad thing. Professor Gopnik would tell you that by pretending to be confident and successful, you actually do become confident and successful.

"It's part of this curious human ability to create who we are, in as much as we discover who we are," she says.

Imaginary friends
Perhaps the ultimate form of pretend play is the invention of an imaginary friend. My daughter was three when Hadyn appeared in our lives for a few weeks. He was a troublesome little lad, that Hadyn, with a tendency to test the boundaries and break the rules, while she declared with big innocent eyes, "It wasn't me, Hadyn did it."

Needless to say I was nonplussed when Hadyn seemed to pay fewer visits and eventually disappeared altogether. But perhaps, I was wrong. Perhaps I should have encouraged Hadyn to become a more well-rounded character, because research tells us that children with imaginary friends are better off.

Marjorie Taylor is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and author of Imagination Companions and the Children Who Create Them. She has found that 65% of children up to the age of seven have played with at least one imaginary friend at some point.

An imaginary friend can be relied upon to keep a secret and give undivided attention. They'll listen to your secrets and watch your back. But just like a real playmate, sometimes the imaginary friend may refuse to share or be too busy to play. These made-up role-play situations are a healthy way for a child to work through conflict and real-life issues.

Alison's brother is a writer for a New York magazine and his three-year-old daughter had an imaginary friend called Charlie Ravioli. Alison says, "The interesting thing was that Charlie Ravioli was always too busy to play with her. She'd say things like, 'I bumped into Charlie at the coffee shop today but he was too busy to stay, he had to run.' She would leave messages for him on an imaginary answer phone: 'Charlie, it's Olivia. Could you get back to me?' Then she'd turn to her father and say, 'I always get his machine."

This says a lot about how a three year old had worked out some pretty profound things about the way life in literary New York works.

Think about this. One of the symptoms of autistic children is that they don't engage in as much pretence. As Prof Gopnik points out, "Contrary to what many people think about imaginary friends being a sign something is wrong, it is in fact a sign something is right.

"Children who engage in a lot of pretend play tend to be more social and engage with other friends."

But this is a relatively recent revelation. A few decades ago the stereotype of someone with an imaginary friend was of a loner, confused about reality and fantasy, who couldn't make real friends.

Marjorie says once she started researching this area she found the opposite to be true. Children with imaginary friends were more creative in their story-telling, had an advantage with language and were better able to appreciate other people's perspectives.

For someone who has spent years talking to children about their made-up friends, some have made a lasting impression on Marjorie. Like Elfie Welfie, a tiny veterinarian, who was married to Sammy Wammy, and lived in an entirely tie-dyed world. Elfie Welfie had a long life as far as imaginary friends go. She was with the child when she was four and was still around three years later.

Then there's Skateboard Guy who would pop out of his child's pocket and do tricks to entertain him. Nutsy and Nutsy were two birds who lived in a tree outside their child's window and she could hear them arguing with each other. Sometimes they'd argue so much they'd fall out of the tree.

There was one child whose made-up pal was particularly disagreeable and was named "Darn It".

And again, researchers have found children are very forthcoming about their imaginary friends, and are well aware of the difference between reality and fantasy. Marjorie says once in the middle of a fascinating interview about an imaginary friend, a child became concerned the interviewer was getting confused, leaned over and reminded her that, "It's just pretend, you know."

One of Marjorie's other discoveries is that many fiction writers say they had imaginary friends when they were young. In one study she found that the percentage of writers who said they had had imaginary friends during childhood was more than twice the average found in a study of high school students.

She says many authors interact with their characters in the same way children engage with their make-believe playmates.

Alice Walker, author of The Colour Purple, says she lived with her characters Celie and Shug for a year while writing the novel.

And this certainly isn't a new revelation. As far back as 1908 Sigmund Freud wrote, "Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own?"

As Alison says, you may hear writers talking about their characters and they'll say something like, "I didn't want her to commit suicide, but that's what she did. I was devastated."

"So if you have ambitions of becoming a great novelist keep your imaginary friends in your Rolodex," says Alison.

Parental guidance
Marjorie says if your child has an imaginary friend you should relax and enjoy it. This "friend's" existence can in fact be helpful to you as it's a window on your child's world. If you're worried about him being afraid of the neighbour's new dog, you may find he's out-sourced that fear to his imaginary friend.

And how much should a parent engage with the imaginary friend? Is it necessary to set a place at the table for him?

And what about discipline? If, in my case, when my daughter claimed Hadyn was the culprit, how could I reprimand her, yet still acknowledge Hadyn's existence? Marjorie's advice is to turn the situation around, by saying, "So what are we going to say to Hadyn?" and give my daughter responsibility for deciding the consequence of the bad behaviour.

Alison agrees that you can engage with the imaginary companion, but you need to be led by your own child. "Remember it's her imaginary friend and you shouldn't turn it into something you want it to be. "

Marjorie and her research team are now exploring things like the role of technology - trying to see how children conceptualise a virtual pet, for example. They want to know if, for instance, children will tell their secrets to a puppy on a screen, or only to their stuffed animals.

They're also looking at paracosms - detailed imaginary worlds older children create. They can have their own characters, geography and even language. Peter Pan creator James M. Barrie and author Emily Brontë were both said to have created made-up worlds in response to the death of a loved one.

Again, the results suggest that time spent in the land of make-believe leads to happier and more developmentally advanced children in reality.

Marjorie points to a study that involved interviewing 12 year olds who were identified as children likely to have problems later in life. Thirteen of those 150 children still had imaginary friends at the age of 12. Skip forward a few years and, as predicted, many of those, now aged 18, hadn't graduated, were using illegal drugs or had a mental illness. But what about those with imaginary friends? Well, they were much more likely to be doing well.

Some psychologists suggest we're less likely to hear of imaginary friends in older children because kids simply stop talking about them due to peer or adult pressure.

So, if we know children with imaginary friends have better social skills, you might be wondering, "How can I encourage my little one to create a made-up friend?"

Well, that's the nub of it. You can't. All you can do is lay the foundations for great imaginative, creative, free, pretend play. The benefits will manifest themselves in a multitude of ways - and yes, perhaps even as Man Booker Prize-winning novelist, or the next Mark Zuckerburg. The best thing you can give your child is your own grown-up time, attention, love, oh, and a plain old cardboard box.

Rochelle Gillespie a mother of three. In her imagination she can assemble a croquembouche profiterole tower, sing like Diana Krall, and get away with wearing six-inch heels. Sadly she's all too aware of the difference between fantasy and reality.


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