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Is frequent pretend play healthy for preschoolers?
Q: Why do preschoolers spend so much time pretending, and is this a healthy habit to support? My 4-year-old preschooler has made friends and is having adult-like conversations, yet a lot of the time she lapses into a fantasy world.
Jane Timberlake
A: So far as we know, pretend play is indeed a good habit to support. It is a clear manifestation of creativity in a 4-year-old. It is also a process through which children come to understand various social roles (e.g., “mothering” a doll, pretending to be a fireman and putting out a fire, playing school and assigning someone to be the teacher and someone else the pupil, etc.).

Probably there is a bit of bravado in it as well. After all, if you’re only 4 and you’re pretending to be a mother to a doll, you’re demonstrating your authority and power over the doll. Or when you make up and tell a story about fantasy creatures, you have control over the events in the story. So, in addition to nourishing the imagination, fantasy play helps the young child begin to feel more competent and effective.

You sound like a good observer, Jane, and that ability should help you decide if the fantasy world ever becomes more real to your daughter than the actual people and events in her daily life. Only then would I worry and seek help. In the meantime, help her enjoy such activities by entering into them with her. When you play together, you can provide a clear path from fantasy back to reality. After you have gone through a fantasy scenario for a reasonable length of time, you can say in a matter-of-fact way, “That was fun. But now it’s time for me to get supper and for you to put away your toys.” According to your description, your daughter is making friends and has no trouble carrying on a conversation. Therefore, I wouldn’t worry. You may be seeing early manifestations of a novelist or poet. And that sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it?

Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education