Excerpt: 'The Secret of Play'

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).

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