Ages & Stages: Magical Thinking

How fantasy and reality develop as children grow.

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Stages by Stage

0 - 2

Responding to a newborn's needs is the first step to pretend play later on, since a baby's magical feelings of omnipotence nurture her imagination. 

For pretend play, offer toddlers simple toys with realistic features, such as dolls, blankets, toy phones, and objects that are important to them in their daily experiences. 

As children play, discuss what they are doing. "You are scary when you roar like a lion! Would you like to have something to drink, Mr. Lion?" or "Where are you going with your baby doll? Is she sleepy?" Join in the fun, but let children take the lead.

3 - 4

Join the children's fantasy play. Wave a magic wand to hasten clean-up. Sprinkle the children with fairy dust so they can "fly" to outdoor play.

Act out adventure stories. Curious George-star of the series by Margaret and Hans Augustus Rey-is always in the thick of things. Encourage children to try a variety of intriguing roles.

Provide open-ended materials for props. A piece of cloth can be a bride's veil, a superhero's cape, or whatever the imagination will allow! 11 Be explorers-take field trips. Give children real experiences to encourage stimulating role play. Go to museums, the airport, a car wash, or the fire station. Or take a walk and see what exciting things your neighbors are doing.

Look at videos and picture books together. Help children build concepts and identify characteristics about interesting themes for fantasy play: exploring volcanoes, mountain climbing, or scuba diving.

When appropriate, treat a child's invisible friend as a group member.

5 - 6 

It is quite natural and normal at this age for children to make up fantastic stories and insist that they are true. The real world is already encroaching on them, so allow children the pleasure of thinking magically-unless there is some physical danger involved in their fantasy.

Provide art materials, fabric scraps, and dramatic-play props to assist children with their magical play and thinking.

Read both fiction and nonfiction books with children. Encourage children to discuss the difference without saying that one genre is more important than the other.

Encourage children to dictate or write down their magical ideas and stories. If a child is telling an amazing tale, ask for permission to "scribe" the story.

Join in the fantasy play! Demonstrate that you are never too grown up for magical thinking.

0 to 2 The Magical World of Babies  by Carla Poole

"How wonderful-everything revolves around me! I am very special and important." Such marvelous feelings of magical omnipotence! This is the way babies feel in their magical world. Magical thinking in newborns is really magical feeling. Baby feels hungry and, magically, warm, sweet milk appears. Baby is cold and wet, then she suddenly becomes warm and dry.

Although babies live in a magical world in which they are the center of the universe, they make logical associations between their sensory experiences. Feeding becomes intertwined with the warm feeling of being held and looking up at a smiling face and hearing a soothing voice. When you sing to a fussy baby, feelings of boredom drift away. The baby links caring adults with feeling good. This is a magical and important process.

Things Happen Because I Want Them To!

Even older babies don't have much conscious understanding of cause and effect. For example, nine-month-old Sophie tries to make the windup toy go by banging it on the table. She thinks it will move because she wants it to. When she is one year old, she'll try again, but this time she'll signal you to make it go. Now she is beginning to understand cause and effect-the car moves because someone does something to it. She has taken her first tentative steps away from the magical thinking that is based solely upon herself and her wishes.

Eighteen-month-old Daniel puts his book down on the floor and stands on it. Why? Because he wants to be in the beautiful swimming pool pictured in the book. Toddlers base their thinking on appearances-the pool looks big and real in the picture, so maybe it is real! In the same way, most toddlers are frightened by masks. Children of this age believe that if a person looks different, the person is different. For toddlers, appearance is reality.

"Birdie, come! Come!" calls out 24-month-old Jason to a pigeon. He repeats his request a number of times; Jason believes the bird will comply simply because Jason wants him to. Likewise, a child may think the moon is following him when he rides in the car at night. At this age, children are becoming more aware of the world around them, but they still overestimate their influence upon people and things.

A Special Perspective

Sarah, at 18 months, covers her eyes with her hands when you ask her to hide the cookie-if she can't see the cookie, surely you can't see it either. Toddlers tend to have one perspective: their own. Perhaps this perspective softens the child's realization of how dependent she is on others. Egocentrism-the feeling that the universe revolves around us-helps the toddler forge bravely ahead in all of her learning. Imagine the difficulty of learning to walk if you have an adult's perspective on the dangers of falling! Or think about learning to talk if you have an adolescent's self-awareness. The young child's perspective, as unrealistic as it is, facilitates learning.

The toddler years are a bridge between the magical feelings of infants and the imaginative pretend play of two-year-olds. Role playing gradually becomes an organized fantasy experience. If a child is really missing his mother, for example, he may pretend to be a mother and pat his stuffed animal's back. His role playing helps him feel close to his mother and manage his feelings of missing her. Or a child may like to pretend he is a lion: Becoming a scary animal or monster gives him a sense of control over some of his own scary feelings. Children's imaginations also help them see things from another person's perspective: This is the beginning of empathy and compassion for others.

3 to 4 Let's Pretend by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

"I need the fast, yellow, lightning bike. You eat the gigantic carrot veggie burgers." On their way to the playground Barry, three, and Li, four, excitedly discuss their plans for "Super Bunny Boy's exciting drive-through restaurant." Four-year-olds, and some threes, begin to plan ahead for their fantasy play. Threes enjoy providing voices and sounds for their play props. Magical thinking inspires this exhilarating play.

Although three-year-olds have wonderful imaginations, they often mimic in realistic-type pretend play what they see around them at home or in their immediate environment. Using a shoelace for a hose, Tommy magically fills a car with fuel. Lucinda loves to dress up in heels like Mommy. Sometimes she plays alone with her baby doll; however, she may choose to play out a familiar role with another child.

Imaginary Friends and Other Fantasies

"Emily, let's do somersaults in the snow. Uh-oh. We're all wet." You've just listened to a conversation between a preschooler and her invisible friend. It isn't at all uncommon for threes, and many fours, to have imaginary friends who provide unique companionship or serve as an audience or even as scapegoats for children as they talk and do things "together." Usually, children develop a strong emotional bond with these interesting fantasy friends. After age four, however invisible friends seem to depart.

Threes are not as linguistically inclined as older preschoolers while they act out their fantasies. Lively, imaginative, silly four-year-olds, however, love to play with words. They are prone to boasting and exaggeration.

Trying to appear fearless, bold fours delight in exciting adventures. Hannah uses fantasy play to work through her fears. "Robbers!" she yells. "Quick, scare them away." Magical powers used by fours often include lots of make-believe violence: breaking things, crashing things, being killed, and getting eaten up. Through pretend play, fours are able to exert control over their own behavior.

Powerful roles are enticing to preschoolers. When portraying a king, firefighter, superhero, or soldier, children feel strong. Discuss with children how heroes can be clever and creative as well as physically strong. Talk about people the child knows, such as a police officer or a school crossing guard. Read books together in which heroes use their brain power, such as Anansi the Spider by Gerald McDermott. Encourage this kind of magical thinking too!

5 to 6 Prime Time for Fantasy by Ellen Booth Church

You can hear myriad fantasies in progress from all corners of the classroom: "I'll ride off on my big horse to save you!" "Watch out, the plane is going to land on top of the skyscraper!" "And then the princess kissed the toad and it turned into Daddy!" Every kindergarten could have a sign over its door: Magical Thinking at Work and at Play Here!

Perhaps one of the most delightful qualities of five- and six-year-olds is their imagination. As a kindergarten teacher, you hear "sound bytes" of fantastic stories in the block or dramatic-play areas, outside on the playground, or even during snack time. A magical story can happen anywhere. And if you listen carefully, without judgment, you can hear the wisdom, grace, and beauty of each magical thought. This is "prime time" for magical thinking.

Children have had several years of experience out in the real world, which they can now combine with stories they've read and videos they've seen to create their own world view. In these years there is still a permeable border between fantasy and reality, which allows children to experiment with roles and ideas as they begin to make sense of the world at large.

Although children this age often know the difference between fantasy and reality, they don't necessarily feel that they need to be bothered with it! For example, Jessica, whose mom was about to have a baby, walked proudly around the classroom with a pillow under her shirt informing everyone that she was having a baby-a baby dinosaur! Jessica knew she wasn't really having a dinosaur baby, but she delighted in imagining it-and in seeing her friends' reactions.

"I bet you can't say my name....it's Rumplestumplelizardskin!"

Children's growing facility with language now permits them not only to imagine fantastic scenarios and ideas but to express them vividly with expanded vocabulary (including magical made-up words!) and dramatic intent.

At earlier developmental stages children have rich inner lives of magic and fantasy, which we can glimpse only through their actions and limited verbal expression. In kindergarten, however, children want not only to act out their magical thinking but to tell you about it-in detail and often when you don't have time to listen! (Ah, but please do make the time.)

You can learn so much about your children by listening to their fantasies. Do they make up characters and scenes in which they are the leader or the victor? How does that role fit with what you know about the child? Julian, for example, was the smallest child in kindergarten. Delicate and shy as he was, he loved to put a scrap of cloth over his shoulders and "fly" around the room, shouting big words that didn't make sense (to us) and stopping to "save" anybody who appeared to need help.

The day Julian found that makeshift cape, he transformed into a character that granted him access to other children's play without his having to ask for permission or be invited. Julian's magical play interacted with the other children's fantasy play, and the children were then able to be together in ways they couldn't have before. Julian's new role gave him courage and showed the other children what he had inside of him. The mouse that roared!

"Ahoy there! Ring my bell in the morning."

Sometimes five- and six-year-old children use magical play to help them through a crisis. Children can take on characters that permit them to say and do things that heal a wound. Randy started coming to school fully outfitted as a sea captain. After this fantasy had continued unchanged for some time, I learned through Randy's mother that Randy's dad was a ship captain and had left the family once again-not just for a trip out to sea but for good. Randy's experimentation with being a captain made him feel closer to his dad and eventually helped him to work out the anger he felt about his dad's leavetaking.

After about six months, a happy, relaxed Randy walked into school one day without the costume or the captain's voice, and the captain was never spoken of again. Randy's fantasy play helped him work through his crisis.

  • Subjects:
    Cleverness, Creativity and Imagination, Learning and Cognitive Development
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