The whole realm of make believe, dress up and role play is so far from the every day tasks to which most of us adults devote ourselves, that it is often difficult for us to appreciate its centrality in young children's lives.
And yet, when we really pay attention to our preschoolers' play and train of thought, we realize that imagination and fantasy play a part in almost everything they do. When they are swinging, they may be flying; when they are eating politely (for once), they may be impersonating royalty; when they are bathing, they may be diving deep into the sea (goggles help).
Experts in early childhood brain development remind us that imagination and perceptions of reality are inextricably intertwined at this age -- and indeed that this intermingling is crucial to how children learn to think.
The brilliant Lise Eliot, author of What's Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind develop in the First Five Years of Life, explains it this way:
"Between about three and five years of age, children actually begin to understand what thinking is. They develop a theory of mind ... a basic awareness of mental life and the distinction between perception, memory, dreams, desires, beliefs, and imagination. You can see this in their play, when they adopt the perspective of different roles -- mother, child, doctor, patient, teacher, friend -- and begin assigning people's actions to internal motives, wishes, secrets, and the like. This is a big step, both in their own self-awareness and in their ability to relate to other people."
That's the amazing thing we learn about imagination from watching our kids, isn't it? As much as it takes them far off on wild flights of fancy, it also helps bring them closer to us and others as they learn to conceive of inner lives beyond their own.
And the more we can do to encourage all of that, the better!
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