Excerpt: 'The Secret of Play'

From Ann Pleshette Murphy, the former editor in chief of Parents magazine, comes a parenting book that indulges in all things fun, curious and inspiring about child's play.

Based on the latest research in brain development, social-emotional growth and learning, "The Secret of Play" explains the value of play at every age and every stage of child development. Parents can learn which toys, games and activities are developmentally appropriate so they can help their kids do what they do best -- play.


The Magic Year
If the first three years of a child's life are often called "the wonder years," then this fourth year should be dubbed "the magic year." Yes, there's something charming about every age, but 3-year-olds greet each day with a breathless, wide-eyed attitude that seems to say, "Today is going to be a fantastic adventure!" Whether they're opening their toy box or the refrigerator, rushing over to show you a drawing, or lathering their hair with shampoo, they do so with a flourish—as if every gesture deserves a drum roll, every accomplishment a round of applause.

Watching your child this year, you'll be awed (and perhaps envious) of her limitless energy and enthusiasm. A ladybug holds her spellbound; a scarf transforms her into a glamorous sorceress; and the concoction she whips up out of mud, sticks, and a few blades of grass is almost good enough to eat. To a 3-year-old there aren't enough hours in the day (one reason why she may suddenly resist bedtime) and her spongelike mind makes her eager to absorb as much as she can from dawn till dusk.

Your child assumes that you share her sense of wonderment—and she never tires of exploring and explaining and asking about the world around her. She doesn't realize that you had a long day at the office or forgot to pick up the dry cleaning; all she knows is that she's an adventurer and you're her partner, teacher, coach, and playmate. Lucky for you, 3-year-old energy is infectious, and you'll probably discover that joining her play is a great stress-buster.

Your preschooler now has the developmental skill and self-control to enjoy playing with other children and to sustain relationships with a growing circle of friends. Her physical abilities, such as increased coordination, balance, and strength coupled with advanced fine motor skills, add to the array of games and activities she and her peers enjoy.

Your child's budding imagination catalyzes an explosion in her creative play: Her artwork is suddenly more detailed; her block towers, more intricate; her pretend worlds, more complex. She'll go from reality to make-believe lands so seamlessly and with such gusto that you'll swear she really inhabits that castle, fairyland, or deep dark forest. Her insatiable curiosity will inspire a litany of questions that run the gamut from the creative ("Why is the moon a croissant tonight?") to the concrete ("Why do we have hair?"), but at times her wild imagination and intense curiosity may invite new fears and phobias—especially when it's "lights out."

Learning Play: Imagine that!

What you'll notice
Have a pen and notebook handy because you'll want to record as many of the amazing things your child makes up this year as possible. When he was 2, props often stimulated his pretend play: He would "cook" food in his pint-size kitchen or power his trucks over a mountain in the park. This year, he takes the next step and doesn't just use these objects for their intended use; he transforms them. Now, his kitchen is a place where a witch brews up poison and the stroller may be the display stand for fruit in his imaginary grocery store. And at times, he may not even need toys to play with since the worlds he can whip up in his mind are rich enough.

Because of this ability to "write" more elaborate stories and his longer focus and attention span, the way your child plays by himself shifts dramatically. He can sit for long periods of time, deeply engrossed in a fantasy world with his cast of plastic or wooden figures, jabbering away as he brings them to life under a chair in his room. Or he becomes the leading man in stories of his own creation. When your 3-year-old does this, he is not just pretending to be that superhero, he is that superhero. One look at his face and you'll see that he could just as easily be scaling tall buildings as he could be in your backyard. Try not to interrupt: These worlds are quite private and if he senses you peering over his shoulder, he may stop playing.

On the other hand, he may introduce you to a new friend—one only he can see and hear. An estimated 65 percent of kids in this age group have imaginary pals, often with names and detailed profiles. In addition to providing comfort, imaginary playmates are convenient scapegoats for spilled milk or crayon marks on the wall: "Buzzy did it—not me!"

Why it's happening
Imaginary play is more than fun and games. It's a sign of your child's more advanced and adult-like thinking skills. Last year, he simply imitated actions that he had observed, such as feeding a baby or stacking blocks. This year, he moves on to what's called symbolic thinking where he can use one thing to represent another. For example, he pretends a wooden block is the toast he's making in his pretend kitchen or a tissue box is a cash register in his fantasy store. Also, as a 3-year-old, he better remembers things he saw or experienced in the past and uses this real-world information as inspiration in his pretend one. His improved concentration means he can take part in a longer sequence of events (rather than repeating the same action over and over as he did last year) and his advanced language skills give him the words to create more detailed worlds both in his head and out loud.

Imaginary play may also be a big part of your child's life because most kids this age can't separate fantasy from reality. Though it's unclear exactly why this is so, one theory is that the two halves of a 3-year-old's brain—the right, which is responsible for perceptual skills, and the left, which is responsible for analytical skills—aren't working in sync yet (and probably won't be until around the age of 4).

Whether he is the actor in his own stories, creates imaginary scenes for his figures and stuffed animals, or has an imaginary friend, pretend play is helping him make sense of his world. After all, each day he is taking in a lot of new information, something that can be quite overwhelming. Imaginary play helps him process and understand it better. For example, when he acts like Daddy leaving the house and going to the office, he communicates his feelingsabout saying goodbye; when he plays the teacher he sees what it's like to direct others.

How to have fun with it
Because your child's brain is like the proverbial sponge, his surroundings are a constant source of fascination and he can entertain himself pretty much anywhere, any time, and with anything. If all he has are three sticks, he'll make one the mommy, one the daddy, and one the baby, or a packet of sugar a pillow for his plastic man. Given his natural curiosity, it's almost a disservice to turn on the television or computer and take away from his sense of adventure and imagination. He needs and wants to use all his senses, and the more he is an active participant—rather than a passive recipient—in his play, the more he will learn.

Your 3-year-old is starting to notice differences in the world around him, which is why he knows that a doctor wears one kind of uniform while a firefighter wears another or why he pretends to have long hair when he's Mommy, but short hair when he's Daddy. To enhance this understanding, read books about different types of people from various countries experiencing a range of activities and provide dolls from different cultures. Also, encourage him to notice the variations in nature by looking at different types of bugs, rocks, leaves, and trees. Child-size butterfly nets and backyard explorer kits can make these adventures even more fun.

Before you pack up the toys and props from your child's toddler years, keep in mind that the dramatic advances in his development mean he will now interact with old toys in new and different ways. Last year, that paper towel roll was simply something he used like a telescope; this year he will transform it into a sword, a tree, a pet snake—all in one day. The miniature broom he uses to help you with chores will double as a guitar, a laser or a flag in his fort. Dress-up clothes; play tents (often in shapes like castles and pirate ships); restaurant kits; plush purses that come filled with pretend keys, lipstick, and cell phones; chunky tools; faux cash registers; pretend food; doll sets complete with diapers, bibs, and bottles; picnic and tea sets; and miniature vacuum cleaners are all great props for pretend play. This year, he'll go from cuddling stuffed toys to giving them roles in his stories, so he'll love plastic or wood or plush versions of his favorite characters and animals.

When it comes to an imaginary pal, don't try to convince your child that this invisible buddy isn't real (so does not need his own seat at the table). It's best to just play along, including telling "Buzzy" that if he spilled the milk, he needs to clean it up. You can also use this friend to help your child manage challenging experiences. If a visit to a new daycare center or a doctor's office seems to be causing stress, have your child explain to his imaginary friend what to expect. His advice to his pal will clue you into his feelings. Or if you're trying to wrestle him into his pajamas, turn your attention to "Buzzy" and announce the start of the Great PJ Race. Just make sure your preschooler wins!

Playing It Safe
Take Mom's high heels out of the dress-up box and hem any clothes that may be too long—both are tripping hazards. Also, replace any pins, brooches, or badges with sharp clasps with more child-friendly accessories.

Loving Play: Sharing and caring

What you'll notice
Last year, your toddler made the big leap from parallel to more reciprocal play. At 2, she probably observed other children from the sidelines before jumping into the action and still needed your help getting comfortable with her peers. But now that she's a pre-schooler, she's more at ease and excited about being with other children. Though she probably won't really master sharing until her fourth birthday, she's definitely loosening her grip on her stuff.

The way your child and her pals interact will also change. Now they'll talk, laugh and enter one another's pretend worlds. You may even find that your child promotes one or two children to the rank of "best friend" (even if she doesn't know exactly what that means). Though you have probably decided who will fill her social calendar in the past, now she'll request dates with certain kids.

One heartwarming aspect of your child's behavior in the friendship arena is how easily and enthusiastically she makes friends. Within minutes of arriving at the playground, your child will be collaborating on a track for her new friend's plastic horse or marching happily arm and arm over to the slide. In contrast to unfamiliar adults at a dinner party, threes rarely engage in stilted small talk; they get right down to the business of having fun. (Interestingly, your child may do this even if she tends to be slow to warm up with adults.)

Why it's happening
Your preschooler is a better playmate because she's developing skills like taking turns and sharing. Her ability to delay gratification will develop further over the next few years—but she is starting to understand the give and take that relationships require. By her half birthday, it will probably be easier to wait her turn for the swing or for her chance to wear her friend's fairy crown.

Your child's problem-solving skills make it easier for her to resolve conflicts and to coordinate her play with her friends. For example, a young preschooler may still grab a toy, but when her friend then refuses to play with her, she learns to use a different approach.

Some 3-year-olds have an easier time than others when it comes to reading social cues. Depending on your child's temperament, she may be more sensitive to rejection or have a low tolerance for frustration that will impact her ability to sustain extended playtimes. But most children this age discover the delight in joining their buddies in elaborate fantasy worlds. One friend may say, "Let's be airplanes" and another will immediately spread his wings. This pretend play is less choreographed than it will be next year when they may discuss where to go and what to do there, but it's clearly more fun than taking a solo flight.

Studies suggest that your preschooler will learn close to a dozen new words daily. And her expanded vocabulary results in better self-expression and comprehension. Combined with her enhanced imagination, her communication abilities will enable your child and her pals to talk more, make up stories, and tell each other jokes (with punch lines only a 3-year-old could love). And if the joke worked once, expect to hear it again and again. Just as adult relationships are often strengthened by "in" jokes or stories that bring back warm memories, preschoolers' bonds are forged by routines and games that become a predictable part of their time together. Now that they are capable of recalling past events, they will gravitate to activities they enjoyed before, so have familiar toys handy.

Another aspect of your 3-year-old's enhanced social skills is her ability to empathize with others. Unlike a year ago, she clearly perceives that her feelings are separate from those of others and vice versa. You'll be amazed (and proud) the first time you see your child comfort a friend who has fallen or dropped her ice cream cone on the floor. She may pat the friend on the shoulder, offering words of comfort, like "Don't cry" or exciting solutions: "Your mom can buy you another ice cream!"

Friends are also a big deal at this age because it's thrilling for your little one to see that there are people out there who speak her own language—literally. After all, there's nothing better than finding a companion who is your own size, loves dinosaurs and mud puddles, and finds potty talk hilarious.

How to have fun with it
This is the time to schedule playdates with friends—especially those that your child mentions often. Try to let the kids play on their own, rather than planning every activity or getting involved at the first sign of a disagreement. Not only is this more fun, but it teaches your child about friendship and forces her to problem-solve.

Since sharing may still be a challenge at this age, help sharpen your child's skills by playing basic board and card games that require taking turns and reciprocating. Choose one-of-a-kind items—like a favorite puzzle or the heart-shaped cookie cutter—and have her wait her turn while you use it. A simple game of catch can help boost her ability to delay gratification: Before you toss the ball back, count aloud together, increasing the waiting period just a little bit each time.

Your 3-year-old's advanced motor skills expand the kinds of games she can play with her pals. For example, they can race each other around the backyard, climb the jungle gym together and, later this year, kick a ball around.

Certain toys are ideal for pretending with a friend. With puppet stages and puppets, kids have to work together on their productions or take turns if one child is the audience while the other one performs. Cash-registers and shopping carts can be props in a pretend store; wooden or plastic food and paper "menus" are great for playing restaurant, and camping kits mean they can imagine themselves sleeping out under the stars. Crumple some orange and yellow tissue paper around a flashlight, and they can sit around their campfire for hours!

Homemade Fun
Preschool-age kids are just beginning to understand the benefits of caring for living things like plants and flowers. Give your a child a watering can of her own and encourage her to help you plant seeds or pull weeds in the garden. Or, if space is an issue, try sprouting beans in a pie pan or suspend an avocado pit in a jar of water and watch it take root. Praising her efforts and enthusiasm will help reinforce how much you value her ability to help a living thing grow and flourish.

Healthy play: Bedtime battles

What you'll notice
Your once early-to-bed child now puts up a fight at the mere mention of pajamas. Sometimes she runs off and hides or starts crying because she wants to play. Your 5-minute warning gets whined into 10. And when you finally pick her up, she's a lot faster, stronger, and squirmier than your patience and energy can handle. The same unpleasant dance may occur at naptime—even if she's rubbing her eyes and looks like she's about to nod off.

Why it's happening
With a big, wide world to explore, the last thing your child wants to do is waste time sleeping. Bursting with curiosity, engrossed in a make-believe world, or suddenly fascinated by the lint under the couch, she doesn't want to hear that it's time for bed. And though she has a better sense of time and space, tomorrow seems like an eternity.

Also, because she's at a stage where she may be experiencing fears and phobias, "lights-out" may be an unwelcome invitation for her to conjure up scary visitors. Sometime this year your child may drop her nap, because she requires less sleep than she did during her baby and toddler years.

How to have fun with it
Borrow a technique from preschool teachers and make a card with your child's name and picture on it. Then place this label on top of whatever she is playing with before bed or naptime. This way she can rest assured that no one will be having fun with her toys while she's catching her forty winks and that she can pick up right where she left off when she wakes up.

Refusing to nap may be a sign that she is ready to drop this midday siesta. Still, insist that she have some quiet time on her bed—not necessarily to sleep, but to read or play quietly. Often just being on her bed will make her drowsy or provide a much-needed break and relax her body. Even when the nap is gone for good, this quiet hour should remain a routine during which she learns to entertain herself and recharge her batteries.

Television or a movie should not be part of a child's bedtime ritual. A better choice is soft, gentle music. And keep roughhousing or active play to a minimum at least an hour before bedtime. Create routines.

It's something that you'll hear at every stage but plays a particularly vital role during the preschool years, when children need about 10 to 12 hours of sleep. If bath time is always followed by a book, prayers, or a special quiet game like saying goodnight to all of her stuffed animals, her brain and body are primed to calm down long before the lights go out.

Did You Know?
A drop in body temperature signals the brain that it's time to sleep. So if your child goes straight from a warm bath to a warm bed, she may have trouble drifting off to dreamland. A bath an hour or so before bed gives your child's body time to cool down and cue her brain for sleep.

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