Babies imitate silly faces. Preschoolers invent characters and scenes. By five, children are staging full-fledged dramas! It's all about imagination.

0 to 2 by Carla Poole

Sarah drinks from her bottle while cradled in the arms of her attentive caregiver. At two months, she looks up and begins to imitate the caregiver's silly faces - eyebrows up and mouth wide open. Several months later, when she is a toddler, Sarah reenacts these loving experiences, holding her doll carefully in her arms and pretending to feed it.

Infants have an amazing ability to imitate the facial expressions and gestures of the people around them. And they have well-developed memories that enable them to remember a lot of what they see, feel, and hear. These imitation games and warm memories help to lay the groundwork for the imaginative pretend play of the toddler years.

Real-Life Symbols

By the age of 12 to 14 months, most toddlers begin to use toys in specific and appropriate ways. One-year-old Tommy knows - most of the time, anyway - that the ball is for throwing and the toy car is for pushing. Within six months, symbolic play begins, and Tommy starts to use blocks to build garages for his toy cars.

Around his second birthday, Tommy squeals excitedly, "Daddy, baby, go, go!" as he puts two fingers in the toy car and pushes it around the table. He's using his imagination to understand real events in his life - such as being driven to the store by his father and to express his memories. Tommy's stories are simple and based on his own experiences, but he is developing the ability to create and tell stories using characters, action, and setting.

Fantastic Dramas

During their twos, toddlers gradually begin to engage in more imaginative play. A group of 2-year-olds can turn a long bench into a bus and, with the playful cooperation and suggestions of an adult, take a trip to the zoo.

Toddlers' grasp of the line between fantasy and reality, however, is very fragile. When Johnny roars loudly, pretending to be a lion at the zoo, his playmate Sam becomes scared. Sam wonders if his friend might really become a lion - he sure sounds like one!

Nurtured Imaginations

The quality of infant and toddler experiences has an effect on a child's play - a secure and happy 2-year-old will easily begin to develop more extended and imaginative play episodes. Comforting hugs and predictable routines help the toddler develop the focused energy for meaningful pretend play - and set the scene for the rich imaginary play that takes places in his threes and fours.

What You Can Do

You play an important role in helping infants and toddlers expand their ability to imagine and pretend - from how you interact with them to the toys you offer. Engage young children in activities that develop symbolic play and encourage imagination.

Give babies a variety of toys - rattles to shake, squeaking toys to pat, plastic blocks to bang. Exploring these helps infants learn that different toys have different purposes - an important step toward symbolic play.

When symbolic play begins, provide toys with a clear purpose. Sometime after their first birthday, toddlers need items that elicit specific dramas. Plastic spoons and plates and a small stove top, for example, will lead to pretend cooking and eating.

Play along and offer suggestions. Sometimes 2-year-olds need a little help expanding their play. If a child is busy pretending to make soup but doesn't know what to do next, for example, you can suggest that he pour some soup in a bowl so you can taste it - "Mmmm, yummy!"

3 to 4 by Susan A. Miller Ed.D.

A small group of 3-year-olds asks the teacher for some cardboard boxes. They're playing "moving," they announce. Maria is the mother. Ashley, she explains, is the little girl, and Romana is her sister. They fold the dress-up clothes and then pack them and the doll's dishes in the boxes. As they carry their packed possessions, they say good-bye to a neighbor - "We'll miss you!" - and then move to the block corner, where they discuss their new bedroom.

Three-year-olds' imaginative play is usually based on their own experiences, and chances are one or all of these girls has moved. Often the pretending is fixated on and extended by a special prop, such as the boxes. Language also has a large role in preschoolers' imaginative play. Threes like to talk to set the scene for their activity -- stating that they're playing "moving," for example and use dialogue to express their feelings, such as sadness about missing an old neighbor.

Character Actors

Three is a common age for children to create imaginary friends. A child may talk for and to this special friend and include him quite naturally in daily activities -- waiting for him to get dressed and saving him a seat at the snack table. Threes are also becoming adept at inventing characters and scenes. But these usually have a short run - 3-year-olds change roles quickly and switch plots just as rapidly. A 3-year-old girl can move easily from being a bride with a special veil at a wedding to a shopper at the mall.

Reality Check

At age 4, children expand on the themes they explored as threes adding more details and realism. Not content with just baking a cake, they ice it, sing "Happy Birthday and then eat it! Their dress and props become far more elaborate too. Pretending to be doctors, fours will wear white coats and gloves and carry stethoscopes - and if these aren't available, they'll make their own. Their dialogue also becomes more detailed and realistic.

Although their play includes a rich degree of fantasy, fours are also developing a firm grasp of the difference between reality and make-believe. As one 4-year-old puts on a cape and starts to fly off, his friend turns to the teacher and whispers, "He can't really fly."

Action Packed

"Bam! Pow! Crash!" These are the sounds of the loud, exciting play of 4-year-olds - especially boys. They frequently become caught up in the rough-and-tumble play of good guys and bad guys - with many of their plots influenced by books or TV shows. This make-believe play provides opportunities for fours to act out feelings of anger safely, to make choices, and to feel powerful and in control.

What You Can Do

Imaginative play gives threes and fours the opportunity to express their feelings and test out roles and situations. Help to encourage and extend their rich pretending.

Provide a wide variety of props. Offer items that reflect children's daily experiences - baby dolls, kitchen equipment, and toy telephones. Incorporate items from their various cultural backgrounds, such as empty grocery boxes in different languages and an assortment of clothing.

Include open-ended materials to encourage creativity. Provide large cardboard boxes to make castles, garages, and spaceships. Fabric can become a fascinating costume - or a night sky.

Extend books through imaginative play. After reading Fireflies, Fireflies, Light My Way, by Jonathan London (Viking), offer preschoolers flashlights and dim the lights - firefly play is guaranteed! Puppets and feltboard characters are another great way to retell and extend stories.

5 to 6 by Ellen Booth Church 

"We can do it right here in the dramatic-play center!" Nikki excitedly announces. "All we need are some costumes and props!" And with that, children embark on the great adventure of play-making.

Today the subject is Cinderella. The teacher helps out by providing a variety of Cinderella books, costumes, and prop materials. Children work together on planning the performance and discussing the characters. By the end of the week, a most amazing rendition of Cinderella is presented at various "sets" around the room.

But the play doesn't stop there - for weeks, children engage in reading and writing about Cinderella, making videos and audiocassettes of their performance, mapping the story, and analyzing the many characters. Through their imaginative play, children create their own integrated curriculum.

Curtains Up

For kindergartners, all the world is a stage. They love to pretend and can slip in and out of characters with ease and clarity. Throughout the kindergarten year, children develop a thorough understanding of the difference between real and pretend and come to understand when a story or character is a fantasy. This awareness gives them a stronger sense of self in relation to the world. Now they're entering a new realm of imagination where they can become other characters and still remain clear about their own identity.

Play in Many Acts The sophisticated pretend play of kindergartners is highlighted by their ability to extend a particular theme throughout the school day - and even longer. Their increased attention spans and awareness of details enable them to modify and embellish plots as they return to them each day, picking up where they left off.

Collaborative Productions

Five- and 6-year-olds apply their developing social skills to their pretending. While younger children often enjoy becoming characters on their own, kindergartners prefer to be part of a company of actors. Part of the fun is interacting with one another - discussing roles, sharing ideas for props, trying out different lines, and even talking about a character's motivation.

What You Can Do

You can encourage children's love of pretending by supplying story ideas and raw materials - and by connecting their play to the rest of the curriculum. Their rich imaginations are one of children's greatest learning tools - and the more you incorporate pretend play, the more they'll learn.

Encourage children to dramatize books, poems, and songs. Children's grasp of literature is always strengthened when they act it out. In doing so, they learn about story sequence and experience the creation of dialogue and the development of characters.

Share different versions of familiar stories. Reading the many adaptations of the Goldilocks story, for example, allows children to compare the different versions - and create their own.

Provide art and writing materials for making props. When children get involved in pretend play, encourage them to make props and costumes and to write signs and scripts.

Invite children to use their imagination to solve real-life problems. When social problems arise, suggest that children role-play possible ways to approach the situation.