3 to 4: Imagine That
Exercising imagination is a huge part of the way preschoolers learn. During pretend play, they discover how to be great problem solvers and develop their leadership skills. Playing different roles, like baby, firefighter, veterinarian, space alien, “good guy” and “bad guy” gives them important opportunities to see things from another’s perspective.
In their imaginary games, 3-year-olds tend to mimic real-life experiences and like to replay daily routines. They may cover their baby doll’s boo-boos with a Band-Aid or make “vroom, vroom” noises for a toy car. Props, like pots and pans, art supplies, and costumes, can help inspire their play. Threes are still sorting out the difference between what’s real and what’s make-believe.
Most 4-year-olds also base their imaginative play on experiences they’ve had with their families or friends. Fours are fascinated, too, with intense, wild, noisy pretend play, such as anticipating a bear attack or “trembling” during a loud storm. Fours engage in detailed dialogue and cooperate enthusiastically with others to make imaginative play more fun. They’re usually more comfortable than threes exploring their feelings, such as imagined scary moments, through pretending.
If your preschooler seems to be enjoying the company of an imaginary friend, rest assured this is normal. The friend may provide special companionship or serve as a scapegoat for your child’s behavior. During daily routines, your child may set a place at the table or buckle up his special friend as you travel to the store. He may carry on lively conversations with his friend. This invisible character usually disappears after age four.
Susan A. Miller, Ed.D., a veteran teacher and director, is a professor of early childhood education at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, and author of the Problem Solving Safari series of teaching guides.