Make-believe really matters, so encourage and support your child's imaginative play.
Q: Both my 4 year old and my 6 year old are fascinated with costumes and role-playing. Is this typical of their developmental stage? If so, why do they crave "trying on" other identities so much?
A: Not only is your children's behavior not worrisome, it is cause for celebration, a sign of their healthy development, and a reason to be optimistic about their continuing social, emotional, and intellectual growth. So I am grateful to you for asking the question; for it gives us an opportunity to share the good news about pretend play with other parents. Many people continue to view it as frivolous, seeking to substitute rote academic exercises for "just play." That is an unfortunate cultural error, probably compounded now by our current focus on educational standards. The fact is what young children truly need is an opportunity for richer and richer pretend play, for it's an avenue to discovering what it feels like to be someone other than one's self. A well-developed capacity to put one's self in another person's place is a predictor of success; in love and in work. By pretending to be a mommy, daddy, teacher, policeman, doctor, even power character, children are seeing the world from many perspectives, safely experiencing a broad range of emotions, coming to terms with fears and any sense of powerlessness or sadness while enjoying being in complete control of their pretend world. Problem-solving skills are enhanced as is creativity, a willingness to take appropriate risks by trying new things, developing new skills, including the give and take of social interaction and even motor skills. The storytelling component of imaginary play is an important pre-literacy experience. So the benefits of pretend play are endless. What parents and teachers can do is provide some props, which don't have to be expensive costumes or toys; in fact discarded clothing and other household items are often better, but adults should never take over control of the play. A pointed question here or there can help to extend the play into broader spheres of imagination, but as long as they are safe, the children should be in full charge.
So in answer to your question, my advice is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the splendid show that is a tribute to your children's healthy growth.
Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant, and author of many books, including Fresh Approaches to Working With Problematic Behavior and Raising Happy and Successful Kids: A Guide for Parents. In addition, she has written and produced award-winning educational videos.