Have you ever heard your toddler in earnest conversation with someone who just isn’t there? Don’t worry. Having an imaginary playmate is an extremely common occurrence with toddlers especially after the age of 2. This playmate is completely in the control of the toddler, totally amenable to his desires, doesn’t talk back or threaten either his person or his property. As such the playmate serves an extremely important function, as the toddler often feels powerless in a world of adults. The playmate can also be used as a scapegoat to blame misdeeds on or as a protector or for company when she’s feeling lonely or bored.
What to do-
- Enjoy it. There are no real harmful effects of such play. Infact you should feel happy that she is exercising her imaginative and creative powers.
- Don’t make fun of her ‘friend’ or disapprove. Instead accept and welcome her friend.
- Follow your toddler’s lead in the matter of how to treat the ‘friend’. If she wants you to greet the playmate greet her or if she wants you to ignore her do the same.
- Don’t use the ‘friend’ to manipulate the child into obedience
- Don’t let your child hide behind her ‘friend’ when it comes to the consequences of misdeeds.
- Provide other outlets for your toddler’s imagination by encouraging play with dolls, action figures, puppets etc.
- Provide plenty of real life companionship.
- Remember that the playmate will eventually disappear.
As the child grows older, in most cases the imaginary friend disappears. For a while an imaginary pet or sibling may replace the friend, but this is also temporary. By the age of 5 and beyond, kids show more interest in fantasy play. This type of play can be imitative in nature (playing house or going to work) or imagination based (playing marooned on an island or the characters of a favourite book or TV show.) Often it is played in a group, with friends – real ones this time.
- Once again, encourage such play.
- Fantasy play is a good outlet for the abundant energy kids have.
- It is also a process of discovery and learning and it helps flex the imaginative and creative muscles.
- Provide imaginative props to the child. If you have a garden, for example, use freshly mowed grass to make a simple grass house by spreading it in a circle with a space for the entrance.
- Help kids dress-up in fancy costumes occasionally
- Fantasy play helps you know what is going on in the child’s mind, what are his interpretations of things happening in the house.
- Use the opportunity to discuss real life situations, issues etc to teach the kids values and also an understanding of situations of which they have no direct knowledge. e.g. what do you think Mummy does at work, how much work is needed to cook etc. The child will learn to think and apply his imagination to empathize and understand situations of which he has no direct knowledge.
Most parents don’t realize that small children can also suffer from stress. They suffer from a variety of fears, over-stimulation and the anxiety of constantly keeping on the right side of the most important people in their lives – their parents. Added to this is the fact that young children have little or no control over their lives or their environment. They are at the mercy of their parents. All of these can create stress, even if it is not manifested in the form of the traditionally accepted symptoms of stress for adults.
Fantasy and short stories play encourages creativity and imagination, brings about understanding of situations alien to the child’s world, and provides an escape from stress and anxiety.
Fantasy play for toddlers as well as kids is a passing phase. Enjoy it with them.