It is important but not necessary for parents to encourage fantasy play in their children. If the child already has an imaginary friend, for instance, parents should follow their children's lead and offer encouragement if they are comfortable doing so. Similarly, with Santa, if a child seems excited by the idea, parents can encourage it. However, if parents choose not to introduce or encourage the belief in fictitious characters, they should look for other ways to encourage their children's imaginations, such as by playing dress-up or reading fiction.
If a child asks if the Tooth Fairy or Santa is real, parents might want to assess their child's level of doubt. If the doubts appear strong then the child might be ready and it is time for the truth. Ideally, the child will find out for him or herself, like a little scientist, so parents might ask, "Is there something you saw or heard that makes you think Santa isn't real?" and "What do you think?"
Fantasy play is correlated with other positive attributes. In preschool children, for example, those who have imaginary friends are more creative, have greater social understanding, and are better at taking the perspective of others, according to Marjorie Taylor, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and author of the book "Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them."
Imaginary friends can also be used to help children cope with stress, Dr. Taylor says. "This is a strength of children, their ability to pretend," she says. "They can fix the problem with their imagination."
As parents and caregivers, we know the coveted place that role-playing and dress-up holds in the lives of our children, but in addition to being just plain fun, imaginative role-play is one of the most important play patterns for your children.
Who doesn't remember turning their bath towel into a makeshift cape and battling all manner of beasts and bad people from the safety of our bedrooms? We did not know that we were onto something and probably neither did our parents; we just knew that it was fun to pretend to be someone else.
Role-play helps teach children about cooperation and taking turns, and as a result it encourages confidence and socialization. Research also tells us that children who are encouraged in imaginative play prove to be more creative, have a richer vocabulary, are less impulsive and aggressive and often become leaders with their playmates.
Role-play is exactly the type of imaginative play that child development experts recognize as preparation for learning and preparation for the rest of their lives.
Role-play is at the core of childhood, where there is no limit to where we can go or who we can become. Putting together a dress-up box for your child is a worthwhile activity. Fill it with clothes for both genders and jazz it up a bit with a few more glamorous items: a feather boa, some costume jewelry or a crown.
You can encourage your children to play, make suggestions, or even join in, but it won't be long before they leave you in their pixie dust as their imaginations run wild, taking them on a magical journey of learning and fun.