How to Manage a Small Child’s Vivid Imagination

How do we help our preschooler develop his strong penchant for fantasy and make-believe in a positive way? We see his lively imagination as a good thing, but we're also concerned to help him avoid extremes. Do you have any advice?

Imagination is a wonderful thing. By enabling it to grow and develop in the right direction you’ll be providing one of the most important services you can offer to your child at this stage in life. A healthy imagination will motivate him to launch out into the world and learn about it with curiosity and confidence rather than with fear and trembling. You can help stimulate this kind of exploration by encouraging your child to ask questions, take part in family conversations and engage with good books.

You can also help to foster a positive imagination by paying attention to how your child participates in role-playing and games of fantasy with other children. This activity of childhood usually gets into full swing during the preschool years. For kids at this age make-believe is not only normal but healthy. Pretending to be Moses or Cinderella, setting up a store or a ranch on the back patio and devising their own adventures will exercise language and imagination far more than staring at a TV screen. You can generally allow these sessions to proceed with a minimum of parental intrusion, but keep your eyes and ears open for a few situations that may require some revision of the script:

  • Inappropriate characters. While someone may want to play Captain Hook or Goliath to round out the characters in a make-believe story, role-playing options shouldn’t include serial killers, vampires or other relentless evildoers. Suggest more heroic or more neutral characters.
  • Destructive scenarios. If your child’s pretend characters do nothing but ninja-kick, wave laser sabers, fire toy guns and generally inflict make-believe damage on others, you may want to suggest some less violent alternatives.
  • Toxic fantasy. This is a tough call in some cases because fantasy elements of many stories (such as C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia) can serve to convey some very positive values. But role-playing that involves “pretend” occult practices (such as séances or Ouija boards) or elaborate spell-casting could whet young appetites for more hazardous activities later on.
  • Too much of a good thing. Preschoolers can become so enthused about pretending to be Superman or Pocahontas that they don’t want the game to end. They may also try to use their character to gain power or attention. When your call to get into the tub is met with a resounding refusal (“X-wing pilots don’t need baths!”), you’ll have to decide whether to have your way by playing along (“Your bath orders come directly from your squadron leader!”) or by calling for an intermission.
  • Early adolescence. Little girls love to play “lady dress up” with old hats, costume jewelry and gloves. But when a four-year-old insists on putting on nail polish or becomes overly infatuated with the social life of a popular doll, you might want to encourage her to broaden her horizons. The same observation applies in the case of boys: there will be plenty of time for the teenage years when they actually arrive.

To summarize, imagination can be a great thing, but you have a responsibility to help your preschooler understand the difference between truth and make-believe on a day-to-day basis. At an age when there is so much to learn about the world and so much going on inside your child’s head, the boundaries between reality and fantasy will wear thin at times.

So if you hear a breathless report that there are giant spiders crawling around his room, and if it appears that his main interest is in gathering attention or reassurance, explain what can go wrong if he makes up alarming stories. If he tells a whopper to explain how the lamp was broken (“A big gorilla climbed through the window and knocked it over!”), you’ll need to coax the truth out with some finesse. In particular, he should understand that telling a lie to escape punishment is a much bigger concern than the actual misdeed itself.

If you have further questions or would like to talk about your concerns at greater length, call us. Focus on the Family’s counselors are available to discuss your concerns in a free over-the-phone consultation.


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