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December 2009

AweSome and WonderFull

The Magic of Make Believe

By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.

Through a child's eyes there is wonder in the ordinary, excitement at the predictable and absolute conviction about the imaginary. Childhood is a time when everything is new. Experiences are rich. Relationships are life-shaping. It is also a time when the lines between fantasy and reality are easily blurred. "A spoonful of rice cereal coming toward my mouth is a train entering the station." "I turn into Daddy (with a big booming voice) when I step into his shoes." "If I want to have my brother's Matchbox car, of course he will let me have it." At the center of it all is the child's belief that everything around him--the objects, events and people--is entirely because of him. If a thought is in his consciousness, it is "real."

In the early morning hours, he will continue a conversation with you that was begun in his dream and expect you to know what was already said!

Selma Fraiberg called the years from birth to age 8 "The Magic Years." Her classic book by that title was first published in 1959 and continues to remind parents and professionals to view early childhood as a unique and influential period of human development. Fraiberg described the powerful magic at work: "If he closes his eyes, he causes the world to disappear. If he opens them, he causes the world to come back."

As he passes through these wonder-filled years, a child needs parents and other caregivers who appreciate and support his imagination and curiosity. A child's wonderment (at both reality and fantasy) allows him to make sense of his early experiences and to formulate a path for living his life. This is the time for considering some really big questions.

Social Roles

Make-believe play is the primary occupation of young children. "Let's pretend . . ." is the opening line to a satisfying play date. A child can take the social questions he wonders about, such as, "Why does the baby need so much of Mommy's attention?" and, "How would I be as a shopkeeper/nurse/parent?"and play them out. It is easy enough to support dramatic play with a few simple props and dress-up clothes. Large empty boxes can become so many things: cars, tables, space ships, stoves or store counters. A towel can be a cape, an apron, a bed or a magic carpet. Scenes unfold in which the players try on the roles of a family, a shopkeeper and customer, a health professional and patient. Often a child plays out scenes from real life, his last inoculation, for example, and overcomes the powerlessness he felt by making a doll, friend or parent play the petrified patient. More adventurous play occurs when the children become superheroes with powers beyond even their parents, rescuing each other from imaginary villains.

Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist who gave us the term "egocentric" to describe how young children are capable of seeing things only from their own perspective, called this "symbolic play." The child is able to use toys or household objects, or even pantomime (picture your child turning a nonexistent steering wheel) to reproduce what he sees adults doing and to practice for his future. When this type of play is open-ended, that is, unguided by the adult, the child expresses themes that are on his mind and uses his own problem-solving strategies to interact with other playmates. He learns how to use language, collaborate and compromise, lead and to follow, and find out what it would be like to be someone else. Acting in character, say child development experts, gives him insights into his and others' emotions that will help in future relationships.

How Does It Work?

At age 4, my daughter asked me why the raindrops on the hood of the car were "clumped together." When I turned the question back to her (a nursery school teacher technique), she said it was because they liked to be together. Molecular physicists would agree. Two hydrogen molecules and a single oxygen molecule are connected in an arc as water. The surface tension of water droplets explains the attraction of smaller droplets to each other. The outermost arc of hydrogen and oxygen molecules tend to form in rounded shapes until the weight of the "clump" pulls it downward and spreads the water outward on the car. But molecular physics is for later. In early childhood, it's enough to surmise that raindrops like being together.

The Wright brothers spent countless childhood hours watching birds in flight, pondering the possibility of human flight. A whirligig toy, a gift from their father, ignited their intrigue when Orville was 7. This was followed by several years of kite-making in which the brothers honed their knowledge and skill in aerodynamic technology. The rest of the story occurred in their adulthood. Jump ahead 100 years, and we have 16 countries collaborating on an international space station, studying how earthlings might live in space in the future. The impossible becomes possible when children watch birds and wonder.

Religion and Stories

Similar to science concepts, a child's firsthand experiences influence how he thinks about religious concepts. Parents and religious teachers try to shape the direction of these thoughts, but a child also puzzles out spiritual questions by talking with friends and musing on his own. "Why did my cat die?" "Will I die, too?" The child considers ideas about spirits, angels, demons, ghosts, souls, prophets and healers and gradually weaves this into an understanding of the metaphysical world.

Religious doctrines and traditions are incorporated through life experiences into a child's foundation of core values and behaviors. Charity and gift-giving are common at this time of year, attributed to the teachings of many religions and cultures. Saint Nicholas lived in Turkey 1,500 years ago, but his spirit continues to inspire giving. The Hanukkah story occurred even earlier and is retold by Jewish families as they light candles each of eight nights. Kwanzaa was created just a half-century ago, guiding African-Americans to experience cultural pride with symbolic customs, such as candle lighting and homemade gifts. A child can carry the wonder of his family's customs into his own adulthood, basking in the glow of candles, the pleasure of opening a present or the warm feeling he gets from making someone else's holiday bright.

Folklore, created and altered to suit each culture's needs, engages a child's wonderment at the potential reality of it all. Could a red-suited philanthropist be responsible for gifts on Christmas morning? Could a determined turtle really win a race against a distracted and overconfident rabbit? Elves, fairies, goblins, talking animals, bewitched princes and princesses and the ever-popular wicked stepmother can teach ethics and values through the adventures of its characters. (Nothing too scary, though, for children 8 and under!) Stories told or read, especially in the cozy calm at bedtime, open a child's mind to an unlimited world of possibilities.

So many things to wonder about!

Deborah Wood is a child care trainer and parenting educator. Workshops open to the public are listed at She is the founding director of Chesapeake Children's Museum in Annapolis--where wonder is encouraged!