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The Role of Make Believe in Healthy Child Development

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As I watched my four-year-old granddaughter, put her doll to bed, I was again reminded of the many ways in which make-believe fosters healthy growth and development. In her make-believe, Heather was not practicing for a later role as a mother. Rather, she was dealing with the fact that she had a new baby sister who was taking a lot of her mother’s and father’s attention. Sometimes children create imaginary companions who can help a child deal with socially unacceptable impulses, or avoid responsibility for certain actions. A child who broke a plate insisted that his imaginary companion, Stevie, had done it. And when children engage in dramatic play and put on adult clothing and adopt adult postures and language, this is not simply imitation. Rather in such play, children are making believe that they have the power and prerogatives of adults that are denied to them as children.

The benefits of make believe go well beyond the therapeutic. Engaging in make believe encourages children to go “beyond the information given,” to conceive of options and not to accept the first idea that is presented to them. Indeed, critical thinking has its roots in make believe play. It encourages creativity as well. Norman Brosterman in his book Inventing Kindergarten makes some fascinating observations. He found that Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Klee, and Piet Mondrian had all attended Froebelian kindergartens. In these kindergartens children create a variety of forms, structures and images with blocks of various kinds, paper cut into geometric patterns, dried peas and toothpicks (the forerunner of tinker toys) and many more materials of this sort. Brosterman found remarkable parallels between what children created in the Froebel kindergarten and the work of the artists who had attended these kindergartens as children.

The uses of make believe are not limited to early childhood. Erik Erikson uses the following passage from Tom Sawyer to illustrate still another function of make-believe:

“Ben Rogers hove in sight presently—the very boy, of all boys, whose ridicule he had been dreading. Ben’s gait was the hop-skip-and-jump – proof enough that his heart was light and his anticipations high. He was eating an apple and giving a long melodious whoop, at intervals, followed by a deep-toned ding-dong-dong, ding-dong- dong, for he was personating a steamboat. As he drew near he slackened speed, took the middle of the street, leaned far over to starboard and rounded to ponderously and with laborious pomp and circumstance – for he was personating the Big Missouri, and considered himself to be drawing nine feet of water. He was captain of the boat and engine-bells combined, so he had to imagine himself standing on his own hurricane-deck giving the orders and executing them.”

Erikson interprets this play by saying that Ben is a growing boy:

“To grow means to be divided into different parts which move at different rates. A growing boy has trouble in mastering his gangling body as well as his divided mind. He wants to be good, if only out of expediency, and always finds he has been bad. He wants to rebel and finds that almost against his will he has given in One meaning of Ben play is that it affords his ego a temporary victory over his gangling body, and self by making a well functioning whole out of brain (captain), the nerves and muscles of will (signal systems and engine) and the whole bulk of the body (boat). It permits him to be an entity within which he is his own boss because he obeys himself.”

Accordingly, make-believe far from being a waster of time and unaffordable luxury is a crucial contributor to the healthy growth of mind, body, and spirit.

By David Elkind Ph.D 

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