Excerpt: 'The Secret of Play'

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.

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