My daughters are almost two and they love puppets. They pick up the stuffed animal-like puppets and run them over to their father who promptly puts it on his hand and suddenly the puppet is alive!
It’s amazing to watch them. They know the puppet is just a puppet, a lifeless toy, until they bring it to Daddy. Their eyes are alight with anticipation as he slips it on his hand. They laugh, hug the puppet, stroke and talk to the puppet as if it is a real, living thing. As the puppet comes alive they do too and their reactions to this simple game are beautiful. Imaginative play is so crucial for this age and having an adult to model this type of play is priceless. In the hands of Daddy the puppet waves it’s arms and nods, talks in a silly high-pitched voice and reacts to whatever the girls do.
Is there another time in life when a suspension of disblief is so visible? A time when imagination allows a stuffed animal, a paper bag or a sock to turn into a sentient being in need of kisses and hugs? Early childhood is a unique time when kids believe wholeheartedly in magic and miracles and through their eyes I can too.
Ideas to encourage pretend play:
Puppets—You can buy puppets in any toy store but I find they are very expensive and puppets are so easy to make! Just a sock on the hand (glue on some eyes or just draw them in with a Sharpie!) with an elastic band around to make the mouth (so the band goes over the sock around your hand with your thumb under the band) is enough! You can even use stuffed animals and “animate” them making them move and talk.
Dress-up—A box of old clothes, hats and shoes is plenty. Our dress up bin contains some horrible old ties I made for my father years ago, some old halloween costume pieces, old purses and cell phone holders (and old cell phones!), along with some hand-me-down purchased dress up clothing. I regularly look at used clothing stores and consignment sales for little additions. Twinkle Toes LOVES to get dressed and undressed in her own clothes so anything, including my clothes, are good enough for her!
Cooking tools—Most people already do this for their kids but as a reminder: give your kids some cooking tools, whether the “real thing” or play kitchen tools. Cups, spoons, bowls, whisks, spatulas, pots, pans, anything you can spare! I clean out my old spice jars and other small plastic containers with lables so they can feel like they’re using the “real” thing. Don’t forget to taste their creations and enthusiastically compliment the chef!
Books and Authors—If you read to your kids and in front of your kids regularly it’s likely that they already do this naturally. Pre-readers often pretend to read books to themselves, to their toys and any other people near them. Encourage this! Ask them to tell you a story, it doesn’t matter if it goes along with the pictures or not. They’ll believe they’re really reading which is a really important step toward “actual” reading. Let them be authors too, cut some paper in half then fold all the pieces together and staple along the folded edge. Even if they can’t draw real pictures yet they can “read” their books to you and they’ll become authors.
Boxes—A cardboard box is one of the best imagination tools I’ve ever given my kids. We currently have one in our backyard that has been a house, a boat, a cage, a reading corner and a lab (Punkin is an evil scientist in the making I guess). I usually cut a hole or two in them as windows or doors but they really don’t even need the help. I often wonder why I bother wrapping up real gifts at Christmas, I should just wrap up three huge cardboard boxes and let the kids create a whole new world!