The benefits of make-believe

The benefits of make-believe

Photography by Michael Alberstat Image by: Photography by Michael Alberstat Author: Canadian Living


The benefits of make-believe

On any given day, Josephine Fernicola's children, ages six, four and three, can be found pretending to be somebody else. They might be brave knights, parents caring for their babies or even a team of busy zookeepers. When they see an empty cardboard box, it's a boat or perhaps a car. "Like most 
children, my kids are super-creative. They have big imaginations," says the Keswick, ON, mom. Sound familiar? Good news: Games of make-believe develop skills that set your child up for future success.

Problem-solving through play
Our society may seem focused on achievements and goals, but nurturing your child's ability to think outside the box definitely has its rewards, says Kathy Lynn, a Vancouver-based parenting author and speaker. "Imaginative play is the foundation for all sorts of problem-solving and lateral thinking," says Lynn.

For kids, that might mean developing the ability to negotiate a resolution when two pals both want to be queen of the castle. "Make-believe allows kids to have some control over their lives," says Lynn. "Unlike games with rules and expectations, this allows kids to be in charge, to try out ideas and new ways of looking at the world."

Fantasy also develops a child's potential, says Robin Alter, a clinical psychologist in Toronto who specializes in children's mental health. "When they are pretending to be mommies or daddies and teachers and doctors, they are preparing for future roles," she says. There's no limit to what they can be in their minds, and that can boost your little one's self-esteem.

While most of this play is for fun, it can also be a coping mechanism, Alter explains. "Imagination can be used as a way to escape unpleasant realities," she says. "When adults are talking and it's boring, a child might escape into her imagination to be entertained."

But if a child spends too much time in imaginative play rather than reality, it may be a sign of avoidance, says Alter. She suggests talking to your children about their feelings and any problems they may be experiencing. "You want imagination to serve the real world, not be a replacement for it."

Nurturing imagination

"There's a world of opportunity available to kids these days. Expressing creativity in your free time and through lessons in the arts simply adds up to living a better life," says Kent Suss, theatre school director at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People in Winnipeg. "Healthy kids make-believe. They do it because it's fun and it comes naturally." Parents can do a little to help the process, though.

In her home, Josephine allows the kids plenty of time to play, and supplies them with a box filled with different hats, toys and costumes. "I believe in child-led learning, and I look for cues as to what they're interested in," she says. "I listen to their stories, their questions, watch their play and go from there."

Parents can also lend support simply by letting play happen. "Don't start directing the child or set rules that you think make sense," says Lynn. "If you are invited into their world, then participate."

Building on creativity

What happens when children get older and no longer pretend? It's not that they stop entirely; they just don't use the word make-believe to describe the activity. "It becomes creativity," says Alter.

At this stage, older children might enjoy participating in an acting class or a theatre camp, suggests Suss. At home, allow kids to express creativity in meaningful ways, such as creating a comic book if they love to draw or writing lyrics if they enjoy music. If fostered, imaginative thinking will continue to serve them when they grow up, says Suss.

"Adults still love to make-believe, but we channel it into the practice of art—drawing, writing, making music, making movies, telling jokes, swapping stories and expressing our exuberant imaginations every way we can."

Check out our tips on how to encourage your child's imagination.
This story was originally titled "Let's Pretend" in the April 2014 issue.
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The benefits of make-believe