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Ask an Expert: Imagination and Fantasy in Early Childhood About
Karen Stephens, April 2008

Anyone who has spent any time with children knows that a child’s imagination knows few boundaries. Being able to navigate the realm of fantasy play is a natural characteristic of childhood. Children engaged in pretend play can be an endearing sight for adults watching them, but pretend play’s value goes far beyond entertainment. Imaginary play is a critical tool that children use to help them explore and gain greater understanding of the world and their place in it. In this Ask an Expert discussion, Karen Stephen explores why children are naturally drawn to fantasy and pretend play and examines how such play supports children’s overall development and their ability to adapt to their environment and social life. Questions answered include, “How should I respond to my 3-year-old who plays with an imaginary friend?” “Can you connect play and academics for us? Why is play good preparation for success in school?” “What are some ways we can respond to creative play that turns too physical or aggressive?”


Karen StephensKaren Stephens began working in early childhood programs as a preschool teacher in 1975. After obtaining her master’s degree in 1980, she became director of the Illinois State University (ISU) Child Care Center as well as an instructor in child development for the ISU Family and Consumer Sciences Department.

Since 1980, she has served as instructor, trainer, and presenter for early childhood professionals and parents in community college, hospital outreach, and conference settings. From 1990 to 1992, she was president of the Midwest Association for the Education of Young Children.

Karen is coauthor of The Child and Adult Care Professional (Glencoe/McGraw-Hill Publishing) and author of Block Adventures (First Teacher Press). She is a long-time contributor to Exchange—The Early Childhood Leaders’ Magazine. She also writes quarterly for parents and early childhood teachers in the magazine The Space for Everything Early Childhood, published by the Childspace Early Childhood Institute of Wellington, New Zealand.

Karen’s parenting advice columns for parents and early childhood programs is published on a CD titled “The Complete Parenting Exchange Library.” The CD includes 200 resource columns that can be shared electronically or through hard copy with parents and those helping parents nurture children. The CD addresses a wide array of topics, such as building children’s self-esteem, nurturing brain development, coping with children’s fears, connecting children with nature, and guiding behavior positively.

Questions & Answers (Edited Transcript)

Question There have been stories in the media recently about the beneficial influence of creative play in helping children develop impulse control. That seems counterintuitive to me. One would think that more-structured activities would help children learn self-discipline. Why isn’t that the case?

Answer I’m so glad to hear you’ve been able to access this media coverage! It is very exciting to learn that research has shown that children who regularly engage in plentiful creative, imaginary play do indeed excel in the mental skill referred to as “executive functioning.”

That term—“executive function”—refers to mental processes through which children learn to regulate and control their own “knee-jerk” impulses and emotional reactions. It means they gradually learn to think and control behavior before they act inappropriately. They gain competence in mentally solving problems so they learn to behave more reliably within acceptable social rules and conduct. And it turns out that the ability to regulate and control one’s behavior is a very good predictor of success in school.

When children’s executive functions are well developed, children aren’t as dependent on “outside” authority figures to constantly monitor and enforce rules and limits for appropriate behavior or social participation. In other words, children learn to internally “police” their own behavior so others don’t have to do it for them. Imaginative play gives children lots of practice with independent, autonomous thinking, so they gradually develop decision-making skills and master self-discipline.

During peer pretend play, other children also help each other learn to concentrate and “stick” within a character’s boundaries. Children remind peers when play is getting out of order and prompt them to get “back into” character. For instance, if a child assigned to play a “baby” didn’t conform properly and started to run in circles, you would likely hear other children say something like, “No, no, babies can’t run. Babies crawl!” In other words, children often coach each other in self-control so a fantasy play theme can proceed and so the fun can continue.

Very structured, rigidly defined activities “direct” children on what to do, how to do it, where to do it, and for how long. The adult who creates the structured activity probably does more personal problem solving than the child who actually takes part in the activity. Structured activities, which heavy handedly dictate children’s actions, don’t allow children much practice at making wise choices or good decisions—both of those skills are critical to developing self-regulation, self-control, and personal accountability.

So, why does imaginative play work so well at developing children’s executive functions—in other words, self-regulation and self-control? It’s because in “pretend play,” children create the rules and play themes and must stay “in character” or within the boundaries of believability for their pretend play to work. Peer pretend play especially requires children to “stay in character” so scenarios can be acted out.

In addition, being able to pretend within boundaries means children learn to focus not only on what a character does, but they must also learn to resist engaging in actions that are not in line with a character. For instance, a child pretending to be a dog would bark but at the same time would resist “meowing” or making another animal’s sound. Thus, they would be exerting greater self-restraint, maintaining a deeper concentration level, and developing a longer attention span by sticking to the mind-set of their dog character.

When children use “symbolic play” during pretend time, they also learn to stick within acceptable limits so pretend play can flourish. For instance, a child might hold a cup to his face and pretend it is a microphone he sings into. To fully enjoy the experience of being a singer, the child must conform to rules he sets himself—thus gaining invaluable practice in self-control and self-regulation.

Question How can I steer the preschool children in my program away from dramatic play that is simply mimicking the characters they see in popular TV or video programs toward more imaginative, creative dramatic play?

Answer One way is to be sure the classroom is free of commercial materials that manufacturers produce to advertise cartoon or movie characters. For instance, resist stocking TV character dolls or play props in the dramatic play corner. Avoid showing videos in the classroom that feature commercial characters. It would also be good to explain in your family newsletter why you do that. Perhaps it will help parents also steer away from giving children too heavy of a diet of commercial fantasy icons. After all, the more the media creates characters for children, the less opportunity children have to make up creations that reflect their own spirit, ideas, and experiences.

Vivian Paley, a veteran teacher and author of books cited in this talk’s resource list, often had children dictate their own stories to her and then the children acted out stories they personally wrote.

You can also encourage children to act out traditional fairy tales or favorite children’s books. Though some lines might be the same, no two children act out the troll in The Three Billy Goats story in the same fashion. Each troll is as unique as the child acting out the character.

You can also give children a few prop items related to a theme that will trigger their imagination. The key is not to overdo it. If you give children too many props, you are robbing them of chances to develop symbolic thought. In addition, you rob children of problem-solving opportunities as they go about creating needed props. Give just enough props to stimulate imagination and then let children run with the story line in their own spontaneous, unique way. Multiple props encourage successful cooperative peer play.

Children's favorite pretend play kits often start with their parents’ occupation. Whether a parent is a construction worker, doctor, veterinarian, farmer, or store salesperson, children will love pretending to be one, too!

Below are some examples of dramatic play kits children enjoy. Your own imagination can come up with others customized to your classroom’s interests:

  • Veterinarian: Stuffed animals, gauze, band aids, tape, towel for an "operating table," toy stethoscope, box or milk crate for patient bed, notepad for prescriptions, play money, and cash register.
  • Rock Singer: Microphones (glue a small sponge ball on top of an empty paper towel roll); sunglasses; flamboyant hats, scarves, or capes; instruments such as wood shakers, oatmeal box and wooden spoons for drumming, lidless shoebox strung with rubber bands for strumming.
  • Firefighter: Boots, coat, short piece of cut garden hose.
  • Florist: Empty plastic vases, silk or plastic flowers, play money.
  • Ice Cream Store: You won’t need one prop; all kids know how to mime out the joy of buying and eating an ice cream cone!

Question How should I respond to my 3-year-old who plays with an imaginary friend?

Answer First, there are a lot of misconceptions about children who create imaginary friends. Some of the myths that once labeled these children as emotionally damaged or as "social misfits" have—thankfully—been dispelled. It turns out that having an imaginary friend during childhood is common. True imaginary friends come from a child's own mind. The friend's traits, emotions, and conversation all spring from children's own perceptions, experiences and wishes.

With a few cultural exceptions, children the world over enjoy imaginary friends. It's estimated between 25 and 45% of 3- to 7-year-olds create imaginary playmates. For most children, the friends are invisible, but some take the form of a doll, stuffed animal, or toy, such as a truck or airplane.

Having an imaginary friend peaks among preschoolers, but is still common among pre-teens. On average boys tend to create imaginary friends a bit later than girls.

Boys also differ somewhat in their approach to imaginary playmates. Boys often "become" the friend—taking on an alter ego. Their pretend friends are often bigger, stronger and older, with greater competence and power.

A girls is more likely to create a fantasy friend separate from herself. Girls’ imaginary playmates are often "younger" and need more nurturing, such as needing help reaching a goal or facing physical challenges.

Research has given us a portrait of children who enjoy creating imaginary friends. Below are characteristics these children commonly share. They tend to be

  • emotionally well-adjusted;
  • intellectually skilled, but not necessarily of higher IQ;
  • outgoing and social, not typically shy, isolated, or withdrawn;
  • advanced in understanding of social relationships;
  • verbally skilled;
  • able to take others' perspectives to create complex play themes;
  • able to focus on an idea and maintain good attention span;
  • creative, but not significantly more creative than others;
  • more self-directed during unstructured time, preferring to play rather than watch television; and
  • able to enjoy fantasy play while also grasping the difference between "real and pretend" (exceptions being when cultures actively encourage children to suspend disbelief of magical beings such as Santa Claus or Tooth Fairies).

Actually, there are many benefits to imaginary friend play. Children say they create imaginary friends for the pure and simple fun of it. They love the fantasy. These children enjoy social interaction, so if an actual playmate isn't available, they create one.

Imaginary friends also give children a sense of control, since they rarely disagree or refuse to play. Children’s feelings can be managed by assigning them to the friend or seeking the friend's comfort. Children sense unconditional love from imaginary friends and confide secret worries to them without fear of judgment, punishment, or abandonment.

It's very handy for a child to have a "scapegoat" to blame for minor mishaps. But, more often, imaginary friends help children cope with events. For instance, children "rehearse" an anxious scenario with an imaginary friend to prepare for the event, such as adjusting to going to the dentist or flying on an airplane.

Also, if an important relationship is missing in a child's life, (perhaps because of a parent divorce or death), some children create a "pretend" person to stand in for the relationship as they gradually accept reality.

All the above indicates that in vast majority of cases, a child having an imaginary friend should not be a worry to parents. How should a parent respond? Well, it's really up to adults to decide how much attention to give a child's imaginary friends. Some parents love the fantasy play; others find it boring or "childish." Children read adult body language very well, so don't pretend to enjoy "playing along" if you don't. Casually let children go on about their play without your participation.

If the spirit moves you, by all means enjoy imaginary friend play with your child. Time spent together, a few props, and space to play are contributions you can make. By following your child's lead, you can gain interesting insights to their thoughts, emotions, and relationships.

Many children like to use art supplies to draw pictures for invisible friends, or they create houses and play spaces for them. If you provide supplies geared to your child's age and abilities, such as cardboard boxes, fabrics, glue, and colors or markers, play becomes engaging and detailed.

Sometimes whole families respond to the imaginary friend. The friend gets a seat at the dinner table or is "buckled" into a car seat before going to child care. Some families are even sad when imaginary friends are outgrown.

Whatever your approach to imaginary friends, it's important to be respectful of your child's need for one. Ridiculing, teasing, or belittling children for creating a friend is never productive or kind. No one, including siblings, should name-call a child with an imaginary friend with negative labels such as "crazy" or "wacko."

When disciplining, avoid taking advantage of your child's fantasy friend. Don't trick or coerce a child's behavior by threatening to "run off" a friend if the child doesn't obey. Trust and respect for authority weakens if parents manipulate children through an imaginary friend. For instance, if you expect your child to take a bite of food, say so. Issues become mixed up if you say, "Your friend likes trying it, why don't you?"

Here’s a rule of thumb for parents: If the imaginary friend's behavior stems from your imagination, not your child's, then you are manipulating your child rather than playing with him or her. When nerves are frayed, manipulation is a tempting discipline strategy, but not a constructive one. Keep discipline and play separate.

A child having an imaginary friend in itself isn't cause for worry. But there are situations when an imaginary friend, along with additional factors, can indicate problems needing help. Such factors include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Child has no friends or interest in them.
  • Child engages in violent, hurtful behavior and blames it on the friend.
  • Child appears fearful of the friend and complains it won't go away.
  • Child shows signs of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

I hope that gives you lots of thoughts to ponder. If all else is fine, enjoy the fleeting time when children engage in this very natural type of childhood play.

Question I have found it very interesting how some children, as young as 2 years old, can "pretend" to be a "patient" or "the baby" in playtime. However, there are older children, 4s and 5s, who cannot grasp this concept yet. Can you explain why they cannot get into this "pretend" mode? For instance, when using the medical kit and talking about doctors, I was encouraging the children to ask questions that a doctor would ask his/her patient. One child would ask the other, "What brings you here today?" The older child could not play along because she wasn't really sick and so it made no sense to her that she would say she was sick.... I am not sure how to help her with this... I tried to model the words, by playing the part of the patient, but it didn't help.

Answer Of course, there could be many causes for a child’s inability or hesitancy to join into pretend play. Perhaps as you read this, it will shed more light for you.

Some children are engaged in passive activities for too many hours of the day with electronic media, TV, and battery-operated performing toys, and as a result, they don’t have the time to develop their own imagination and creative thinking or problem solving. That is one of the reasons so many experts are concerned that preschoolers on average may see up to 8 hours a day of TV or video media.

In addition, some children are enrolled in too many very prescriptive lessons all at one time, which essentially steals leisure play time from fleeting childhood hours. I’m thinking of enrichment lessons that sound good, but too much of even a good thing is just too much. For instance, a child enrolled in tap, computer, and swim lessons all at once is too hurried and pressured, thus ending up with too little time to practice using—and enjoying!—his or her own imagination.

Children overly enrolled in structured lessons often end up learning and performing for an instructor’s external praise or reinforcement. To an extent that’s not harmful. But I believe it serves children best if we help them learn how to love learning for its own sake and as a result of their own intrinsic motivation. Open-ended imaginative play is the perfect medium for helping children learn to be engaged in learning for learning’s sake.

Another reason some children don’t dip into fantasy play easily is because of physical ailments, from illness or poor nutrition. In such cases, children might have too little energy to play with enthusiasm and interest.

Another consideration is a child’s emotional and social environment. Children reared in homes or neighborhoods with verbal or physical violence may be too anxious to relax into play. Children having to remain “hyper-vigilant” to unexpected danger in order to survive amid threatening situations have very real limitations put on their play opportunities as well as their ability to enjoy it. That is one reason play therapy is such a beneficial counseling technique with young children. If children can really relax into play with a counselor, they are given a constructive tool to cope with their anxiety.

Question Can you connect play and academics for us? Why is play good preparation for success in school?

Answer Play gives children intrinsically motivating chances to gradually master skills that will eventually help them succeed in school—from fine motor control to attention span and advanced concept development. And what’s better, they work toward those achievements in a fun, nonthreatening way via humans’ (and most mammals’) naturally preferred learning style: active pretend play.

For instance, block play is a huge favorite among children; especially when given ample time and a nice selection of blocks to stack, sort, manipulate, etc. During play, blocks trigger children to action, inviting active "hands-on" application rather than passive observation. Blocks of various kinds can help develop basic concepts such as size, number, shape, color, matching, comparing, balancing, etc.

When toy vehicles, pretend animals, or train tracks are added, block building takes a child into rich symbolic “pretend” play where they create neighborhoods or cities and act out stories. During that imaginary block play, they learn that stories have a beginning, middle, and end. And they learn about characters and plots. That play in fact nurtures children’s interest for stories and provides a natural eagerness to begin to understand stories through the spoken and written word.

Intellectual mastery of academics isn’t all that play supports. For instance, during block play with peers, language and communication skills are utilized. In cooperative play, kids experience and identify emotions, and they learn to effectively express ideas. They gradually master the ability (and patience) to share, cooperate, negotiate, lead, and follow. Those "team player" social skills will be put to good use throughout life—in school and out.

Question My son is 5-1/2 years old. His birthday is September 9, and we decided that he would do better if he waited to attend kindergarten next year as, although he is bright and knows his letters, colors, etc., he seems less mature than others when it comes to social interaction. I'm very confident we did the right thing. He attends Head Start, and the teacher says only good things about his play, manners, attitude, and grasp of what he will need for kindergarten. My question is this: I noticed at a party that we attended last weekend that while there were a lot of 4- to 6-year-olds who were playing excitedly with each other, running around and engaged in pretend play, my son really didn't interact with them much. The little girl who owned the house had a massive amount of toys and dress-up clothes, and my son spent most of the time on his own, exploring these items and dressing up in princess costumes. I am not concerned at all about the dress-up part—we live in a house of three boys so we are fairly short on the sparkly fancy clothes and he has always loved dressing up in all kinds of costumes—but I am more concerned that, at his age, he wasn't really all that interested in playing with the other kids. It's not that he steered clear of them, and he was excited about going to the party and seeing the children. It's just that, once we got there, he really seemed a lot less social than the other children around his age. What do you think about this?

Answer If your child didn’t know most of the other children before the party, it could have affected his ability to “warm up” to the occasion. But even if he did know everyone beforehand, I still wouldn’t worry about your child’s preference for smaller play group or his enjoyment of solitary play. Some of us enjoy larger groups, others don’t.

Each child’s inborn temperament—whether he/she adjusts quickly to new circumstances or whether he/she needs more time to relax—greatly affects responses. We all have a different tolerance level for socialization. Perhaps the extra stimulation of the party and boisterous pretend play of others was a bit overwhelming for your child. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong. And, in fact, it’s a good sign when a child can focus on his own interests despite distractions. That ability to concentrate will come in handy in life.

If your child never wanted to socially interact with peers, there might be cause for concern. But that doesn’t sound like the case to me. And it sounds like he coped with the situation very constructively. If he had totally withdrawn, retreated, or had an emotional outburst, it would have shown that he wasn’t able to cope with the situation. Respect his personal preferences, and he’ll come along fine. He’s learning to respect and be alert to his own emotions and regulate them appropriately within his social context. Hurrah—you must be doing a good job of nurturing him along!

Question What are some ways we can respond to creative play that turns too physical or aggressive? This occurs more often with the boys in our preschool program.

Answer In the thick of rich, detailed imaginary play, boys in particular can become quite exuberant. The same is true for girls, of course, but generally to a lesser extent. Couple this with the average female teacher’s low tolerance for boisterous play and her low need for active movement, and conflict between teachers’ expectations and children’s behavior can arise.

First, remember the many benefits of active, “louder-than-average” creative play for children. Are you being too sensitive to robust play? Are you working with children’s innate need to actively play? Are you working against it—or even stifling it—by expecting restrained play? Can you find a compromise between a need to maintain relative “harmony” in the classroom and children’s inborn need to MOVE and to create exciting dramas that engage them?

One thing teachers can do is make sure that dramatic play areas are far away from more “quiet” learning centers. I’m a big fan of putting the dress-up area near the block play area, since both learning centers engage children physically, encourage enthused dialogue, and can be the settings for lots of imaginative story building.

You can also provide more chances for dramatic play outdoors where children’s louder, more energetic play is more easily accommodated than indoors. Outdoor dramatic play allows for more space, and if the noise level escalates during play, outdoors it tends to grate less on adults’ nerves.

A few props are all that children need. I’ve found that children love to pretend to be carpenters, painters, firefighters, car wash attendants, police officers, or ambulance drivers and doctors outside. You can also add plastic dolls or animals to the sandbox for pretend play outdoors. And as you probably recall from your own childhood, an empty cardboard appliance box is a delight for children to turn into a home, a jail, or even a shelter for “lost” animals.

If pretend play gets out of hand indoors or outdoors, reminding children of basic “rules” that you have established together as a classroom of learners is helpful. For instance, setting expectations such as, “Children may not hit each other” and “It’s important to take good care of toys” are basic classroom standards that children can be reminded of during creative play.

Sometimes a gentle reminder that children’s play is getting too physical or loud for indoors is appropriate. And, of course, if children ignore the limits you clearly state, you should firmly, consistently, and reliably enforce consequences that have been agreed upon. For instance, if children misuse a prop or hurt a peer, they may be asked to find another place to play. If they actually break a toy by being overly exuberant, a logical consequence is for the children involved to help repair the toy. If children cause injury to another child, they may lose the chance to continue play until the next free choice time. And, of course, they should try to help the hurt child—for instance by giving the child a tissue or perhaps an iced sponge to hold on a bump.

Question Are there any particular props or equipment you can recommend that encourage and promote children’s imagination and fantasy?

Answer Props that are engaging are open-ended—meaning that they leave a lot of room for children’s unique input and use. They are also sensory, because that is how children prefer to learn first and foremost. Tactile, colorful, and flexible items make good props to encourage pretend play.

I’m a big fan of open-ended nature props as pretend toys. They are great for symbolic thinking and cost close to nothing. Acorn caps can be cups for children’s “tea parties.” Cut log stumps can become chairs or benches. Long strands of ornamental grasses can become magic wands. A flower on a stem can become a microphone, or vines can be woven into “crowns.” Children can even rake mown grass into “rooms” where play can take place. (Of course, avoid poisonous nature items—such as bittersweet berries—and avoid items that might trigger allergies in some children.)

Also, your landscape can contribute to pretend play. If you include a small knoll in your play yard, children can sled down it pretending to be in the Rockies or on a team in the Winter Olympics. Safe green bushes, like a bower of lilac bushes, can become tiny spaces where “secret” gardens or hideouts can take root in a child’s imagination. Under a weeping willow tree, children can pretend to be in a jungle, a swamp, or even a cave.

In addition to nature inspirations, I think scarves, capes, and streamers have a lot of potential for children’s imagination. You want to offer props that tantalize imagination but that don’t take it over. While I know dress-up costumes are fun from time to time, a steady diet of nothing but detailed, adult-made costumes actually robs children of chances to create their own props and ideas.

Even one prop, such as a hat, is enough to stimulate a story line for children. If children need a phone for their prop, it’s really good for their brain development if they create their own phone by symbolically substituting a Lego ® block or even a pinecone. The ability to understand that one item can “stand in” for another builds abstract thinking skills. (Another note: Washable hats are a must in case of a breakout of lice in the classroom.)

Outdoors, remember the sandbox. Sand is the best ingredient around for baking pretend “mud pies.” Adding toy trucks—cement trucks, bulldozers, and dump trucks, or plastic animals—from dinosaurs to circus or farm animals—to the sandbox provides good motivation for pretend play. Combine water with sand play and children can drive barges through canals they create.

Question How should I respond when children make pretend guns and play at shooting each other?

Answer Gun play is really a controversial, sensitive issue that is laden with values. There is no one “right” answer. And it is an age-old question. As any early childhood teacher knows, even if toy guns aren’t allowed in the classroom, some children readily make them out of blocks, sticks, or whatever is close at hand.

First, let me direct you to some resources that can help guide reflection and decision making as you respond to children’s gun play.

I’m one of those who believe war play will go on regardless of what a parent or teacher wishes. And frankly, in today’s world, it would amaze me if war wasn’t on children’s minds. Children do react to what they hear on the news and see in the movies; both mediums are filled with violence and talk of weapons—from handguns to massive bombs.

I also believe that teachers can gain invaluable insights into children’s perceptions of the world by observing and taking close note of children’s gun and war play. Children’s pretend play also reveals questions and worries that children have about violence in daily life. During such play, children explore topics such as “good and bad,” death and its permanence, as well as reasonable, ethical means to solve problems. In fact, children’s play may also key teachers into referrals needed by particular families—such as the impact of domestic and community violence on children’s development.

In the book, Who’s Calling the Shots, Carlsson-Paige and Levin give lots of tips for including valuable lessons into conflict or war play and suggest props that can be used for other types of productive play, such as treasure hunts or outer space travels. For instance, rather than leaving children to focus only on guns, they suggest that teachers or parents give children other types of props. For instance, they suggest that pillows under a blanket can become “hills” for soldiers or explorers to climb. Or perhaps they can be a safari terrain. Flashlights and walkie-talkies can focus on communicating plans and strategies. A laundry basket can become a boat or jail. Lunchboxes filled with notebooks, crayons, magnifying glasses, or binoculars can become adventure kits or emergency supplies.

I believe it is important for teachers and parents to frequently remind children that real guns are never a toy. As a teacher, I’ve even told children that I don’t like to pretend to play with guns because it makes me sad to think of people getting shot. But I haven’t completely banned gun play. Most often, if play becomes too noisy, I redirect it to outside.

For me, there is very little that is “off bounds” in children’s play because it is developmentally their prime tool for working through life’s issues. I wouldn’t allow play that physically or emotionally hurt children to occur, but likewise I wouldn’t keep children from exploring through pretend play the many “real-world” situations in which hurt does occur.

Question What is the best way to respond when a bossy child tells another child that he or she can't join in the play going on?

Answer I’ve seen children “boss” peers around in pretend play in several ways. Some tell children they can’t play. Others become overly bossy by telling children how they must play—for instance, they tell a child what to say or do when playing doctor. They might even say, “No, that’s not how you fix an arm, do it this way!” Neither attempt at controlling play should be a child’s ingrained pattern of peer interaction. In the end, overly bossy children end up being rejected themselves and even isolated from peers. So the problem of bossing is a hard issue for all children, regardless of which side of the fence they are sitting on.

Most often I would encourage and coach the “bossed” child to stand up for himself or herself. I’d say, “You don’t have to take orders from friends. Explain how it feels when he/she bosses you.” Or I might say to the children in conflict: “The dramatic play area fits five children. If there aren’t already five people here, anyone in our class has a right to play here. No one has the right to tell others where they can or can’t play.”

To the child who does the “bossing,” I’d try to help him or her understand others’ points of view by giving the child feedback. For instance, I might say, “Often children don’t like to be friends with people who order them around. Try thinking of a kinder way to get along with your friends.” Or I might say, “I noticed your friends stopped playing when you told them how they had to act. Why do you think that happened?”

I also want to note that I do believe children have the right to decide with whom they want to play during their day. If a child were telling another child he/she couldn’t join in play, I’d simply say: “The dress-up area is for everyone. If you don’t wish to play with ______ right now, you are free to choose somewhere else to play.”

For those wishing to explore this topic more, you might read Vivian Paley’s well-known book titled You Can’t Say You Can’t Play (1992; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). You might not agree with Paley’s perspective, but it is good food for thought. Also, her book addresses children from kindergarten to fifth grade, so not all of it applies to younger children.

Question What is your opinion on fantasy themes in early childhood (such as giants, pretend characters, etc.)?

Answer I think that if the fantasy theme stems from a child’s imagination and own motivation it can be great fun. Pretending to be fantasy characters or creatures poses some good chances for children to apply creative problem solving.

I’m not a fan of pushing children to pretend specific themes that commercial marketers target toward them…for instance, fantasy themes based on a movie, television show, or a cartoon for which an adult created the characters, plots, and key phrases.

Question My son was diagnosed with PDD-NOS "mild autism." What would be the best ways of bringing out his imagination or encouraging him to use his imagination? He is age 4 now and will turn 5 in July.

Answer I truthfully feel the same techniques that work with typically developing children would also work with a child diagnosed with a mild form of autism. For instance, the same kinds of materials can be used to stimulate make-believe play—from empty boxes to puppets to sand and water play. And all children need safe spaces and good amounts of free time to play to their hearts’ desire.

Dress-up clothes are a popular hit with all children. They take on special meaning after children are exposed to experiences that show how the clothing is used by “real people” in the “real world.” For instance, after seeing a magic show, children would quickly be motivated to pretend with their own top hat, scarf, and cane as they pretend to do magic tricks of their own. Seeing a house being built stimulates children to pretend to be carpenters or plumbers.

An adult—mom, dad, or a teacher—can also facilitate children’s pretend play by entering into play with the child as a co-player. An adult role-modeling how to engage in pretend play is helpful for children developing social competence. For a child with mild autism, this might mean that the adults can be a bit more dramatic and use eye contact more in order to maintain the child’s engagement in the give-and-take of pretend play.

You might also reinforce children’s efforts at pretend play by taking photos or videotaping children during play. Viewing the photos and tapes later with other family members can spur children onto even more creative play.

Question My 3-year-old daughter has an imaginary friend who isn't nice to her most of the time. This imaginary friend is sometimes a boy and sometimes a girl. It seems at times that my daughter might be working through some peer difficulties she might be experiencing at school. She is a very bright and verbal girl. Her teachers say that she interacts well with the other children, but I know that teachers can't observe everything. My daughter recently mentioned that the imaginary friend was making fun of her. When I tell her that the friend won't be able to come with us if he/she isn't nice, my daughter will say that the friend will drive herself/himself there. How can I help her?

Answer First, keep in mind that most children with imaginary friends are very socially skilled, intelligent children. It is a myth that children with imaginary friends are shy, awkward, or are having emotional or social problems in life. So don’t assume that she is experiencing peer difficulties based ONLY on her imaginary friend. (And it seems her teachers are not worried about peer difficulties.)

Your child might be seeking out what you think about children making fun of others. Depersonalize your responses and don’t assume you have control over the imaginary friend’s actions; because in reality you don’t. You can give feedback on the imaginary friend’s behavior, though. If your daughter says that her imaginary friend is making fun of others, you can casually comment that it’s too bad the imaginary friend hasn’t learned to be more polite to other people. Or you could even say something truthful, such as: “If an imaginary friend kept being rude to me, I think I’d pick a new imaginary friend to play with.”

Question My 3-year-old daughter has an imaginary friend who doesn't follow many rules. My daughter will use this as an excuse to get out of bed (because the imaginary friend is running around and doing things he isn't supposed to do). She will say that she doesn't like the imaginary friend very much. Sometimes she wants the imaginary friend to go away, but he won't. How can I better help her with this?

Answer Sometimes children do use imaginary friends as “scapegoats” for inappropriate behavior, but research has shown that this is the exception rather than the rule. Most children create an imaginary friend just for the fun of it—and because they have some free time on their hands giving them the leisure to create an imaginary person. It could be that your child enjoys “vicariously” her imaginary friend’s rule breaking. Sometimes compliant children who obey like to get a sense of what it feels like to break the rules—just out of curiosity. It could also be a way for your child to experiment with the power that she thinks other children feel when they disobey adults and our many rules.

If your child claims she can “misbehave” like her imaginary friend, you can simply, but firmly, comment that you expect your child to obey. You can say that you aren’t the imaginary friend’s mother, so you don’t have to worry about how she behaves, but you are your child’s mother and you have to teach her good behavior. You might choose to simply state that you plan to ignore the friend’s poor behavior and concentrate on being a good mom to your own child. Just be firm, clear, and consistent about behavior you expect of your child, and don’t let your child distract your attention from rules by bringing in the imaginary friend. If you feel it is true, you might confront your child by saying, “I’m wondering if you are trying to trick me into letting you break the rules just because your imaginary friend is breaking them. It won’t work; I expect you to cooperate.” Short and direct responses can work very effectively with young children.

You also mention that sometimes your child says that her imaginary friend won’t go away. At those times, you can tell your child that it is a good chance for her to practice ignoring her imaginary friend, too. You can even practice together, firmly telling the imaginary friend to go find somewhere else to play if your child wishes. If, however, the imaginary friend appears to create a longer-term emotional worry to your child that both you and her teachers notice, you might contact your pediatrician to investigate further.


Resource List by Karen Stephens

Children's Gun Play

Karen StephensResources List: Children's Gun Play

by Karen Stephens

  • Who’s Calling the Shots: How to Respond Effectively to Children’s Fascination with War Play and War Toys by Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane E. Levin (1990; Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers)
  • The War Play Dilemma: What Every Parent and Teacher Needs to Know by Diane E. Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige (2nd ed., 2006; New York: Teachers College Press)
  • Teaching Young Children in Violent Times by Diane E Levin (2003; Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility).

Online Resources

  • Ask Dr. Katz: What Does the Research Say about Dramatic Play Including Gun Play? About
  • Ask an Expert: Children's Play - More than Fun and Games About
    Jean Mendoza, February 2007
  • The Nature of Children's Play. ERIC Digest. About
    This digest suggests that play is a way children develop an understanding of themselves and others, knowledge of the world around them, and communication skills. As children develop the ability to represent experience symbolically, pretend play becomes a prominent activity.
  • Play Activities for Children Birth to Nine Years
    This fact sheet notes that pretend play helps preschoolers learn to share, and it helps their imaginations grow.
  • Creative Play Helps Children Grow!
    This resource discusses how play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Creative play includes games, movement, and questioning.
  • The Role of Pretend Play in Children's Cognitive Development
    This article defines the cluster of concepts related to pretend play and cognition and briefly synthesizes the latest research on the role of such play in children's cognitive, social, and academic development.l

Illinois Early Learning Tip Sheets

Journal Articles

  • Pretend Play: Longitudinal Prediction of Creativity and Affect in Fantasy in Children
    Author(s): Russ, Sandra W.; Robins, Andrew L.; Christiano, Beth A.
    Publication Date: 1999
    Source: Creativity Research Journal; 1999, Vol. 12 Issue 2, 129-40
  • The Characteristics and Correlates of Fantasy in School-Age Children:
    Imaginary Companions, Impersonation, and Social Understanding
    Author(s): Taylor, Marjorie; Carlson, Stephanie M.; Maring, Bayta L.; Gerow, Lynn; Charley, Carolyn M.
    Publication Date: 2004
    Source: Developmental Psychology; 2004, Vol. 40, No. 6, 1173–1187
  • Does Creative Drama Promote Language Development in Early Childhood? A Review of the Methods and Measures Employed in the Empirical Literature
    Author(s):: Wendy Karen Mages
    Publication Date: 2008
    Source: Review of Educational Research, 2008, Vol. 78, No.1, 124-152
  • Narrative, Imaginary Play, Art, and Self: Intersecting Worlds
    Author(s): Jiryung Ahn, Margot Filipenko
    Publication Date: 2007
    Source: Early Childhood Education Journal, Feb 2007, Vol. 34, No.4, 279-289
  • Wanna Play?
    Author(s): Mimi Brodsky Chenfeld
    Publication Date: 2006
    Source: Young Children, Nov 2006, Vol. 61 No. 6, 34-35


  • Block Play: The Complete Guide to Learning and Playing with Blocks
    Author(s): MacDonald, Sharon
    Publication Date: 2001
    Availability: Beltsville , MD : Gryphon House
  • Boys & Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner
    Author(s): Paley, Vivian Gussin
    Publication Date: 1984
    Availability: Chicago : University of Chicago Press
  • A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play
    Author(s): Paley, Vivian Gussin
    Publication Date: 2004
    Availability: Chicago : University of Chicago Press
  • Children's Play: The Roots of Reading
    Author(s): Zigler, Edward F.; Singer, Dorothy G.; & Bishop-Josef, Sandra J.
    Publication Date: 2005
    Availability: Washington , DC : Zero to Three Press
  • Emergent Literacy and Dramatic Play in Early Education
    Author(s): Davidson, Jane
    Publication Date: 1996
    Availability: Albany , NY : Delmar
  • Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them
    Author(s): Taylor , Marjorie
    Publication Date: 1999
    Availability: New York : Oxford University Press
  • Learning through Dramatic Play: A Practical Guide for Teaching Young Children
    Author(s): Hereford , Nancy Jo, & Schall, Jane (Eds.)
    Publication Date: 1991
    Availability: New York : Scholastic
  • Magic Capes , Amazing Powers: Transforming Superhero Play in the Classroom
    Author(s): Hoffman, Eric
    Publication Date: 2004
    Availability: St. Paul , MN : Redleaf Press
  • The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children
    Author(s): Elkind, David
    Publication Date: 2007
    Availability: Cambridge , MA : DaCapo Press

Video or DVD

  • Play: A Vygotskian Approach
    Author(s): Bodrova, Elena, & Leong, Deborah
    Publication Date: 1996
    Availability: San Luis Obispo , CA : Davidson Films


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