There is a good reason Selma Fraiberg titled her classic book The Magic Years. In it, she describes how much magical thinking is a part of the everyday world of children, especially the years from 3-to-7 or so.
In these earlier years, the lines between real and imaginary are pretty blurry for children
The lines blur because childrens’ imaginations are so prolific, and to them, if they can create something in their mind, it can seem just as real and true as all the concrete and factual things in their world.
This is one of the reasons children believe in monsters in their closets. It is why they can struggle to understand that dreams aren’t manifestations of something real.
Moreover, it is also why children can be regarded as lying about something, for they often cannot distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy.
This amazing ability to live in a fantasy world can greatly nurture a child’s creativity.
Children can be encouraged to go on imaginary journeys and assume any role they might enjoy, creating stories brings them a sense of joy, power, fun or excitement. Pretending can invite children to escape from some of the limitations and challenges of being a child. Too, it can give them a sense of hope for their future. If they can imagine it, maybe one day it might become true!
A friend recently shared a very sweet YouTube in which a dad’s young daughter is on a “date.” [https://www.facebook.com/socialmonstersyouth/videos/ ]
You can see the excitement in her eyes as her daddy greets her at the door.
He is all dressed up in a suit and tie and treats her like a princess about to be escorted to the ball. She is all dressed up too! (Mommy helped with that.) Together they go to a “restaurant” set up in the backyard with Mommy assuming the role of waitress, pouring tea and offering treats.
So many wonderful things are happening in this short time: this child is being encouraged to see herself as a princess loved by her daddy. She is allowed to feel very grown up and is experiencing a sense of personal worth because this man she loves is treating her with such respect and appreciation.
In another classic book by Faber and Mazlish, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, the authors describe how parents can give children their fantasy wishes during those times when children are frustrated, angry and potentially about to melt down. How often on a car trip do children become impatient or whine about wanting something to eat or drink?
Instead of chastising them for not thinking to bring their juice cup or snacks or trying to use logic about not being able to control the traffic which is slowing down the ride, a parent can instead put words to what would make the child feel happy. “Wouldn’t it be fun if we had a compartment in our car that was a refrigerator filled with all kinds of yummy treats? If I had a refrigerator like that right now, I would want to be able to reach in and pull out an ice cold drink and some of Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies. What would you like to pull out of the magic refrigerator?”
Giving children their wishes in fantasy shows that you understand how they are feeling.
It can be a connecting moment that encourages creative thinking and diverts children from focusing on how hungry, thirsty or bored they truly are.
Taking the time to join with children in their imaginary worlds allows parents and other caregivers to activate their own creative juices. Children remember times when parents join in the fun of make-believe. Pretending allows both children and adults to escape for a little while into safe and exciting worlds they create.
Helping children create their own magical worlds not only promotes their creativity, but especially for children whose real worlds have high levels of stress, fear or pain, it allows temporary escape for a little while. Even for those moments when children are frustrated, sad, disappointed or hopeless, giving them their wishes in fantasy shows how much you understand and invites them to access their creative abilities to imagine something better.
Additionally, it also can be helpful for parents and caregivers to give themselves some wishes in fantasy. Sometimes each of us needs to re-activate our creative juices to provide a respite from some of the stresses of the real world.
Invitation to Reflect
- Travel back in time in your own life and recall some of the fantasies you had as a child. Try to recapture that feeling of power you had when you escaped into your own world of imagination.
- Consider creative ways you might encourage your children to use their imaginations to make up stories where they decide on the ending or to pretend to be whatever it is that would bring them a sense of power or self-esteem.
- See taking these opportunities to engage in make-believe with your children as a way to connect with them, join them in their play, nurture their creativity and have fun, especially when their worlds might be painful or challenging.
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network