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3–4 Years : Playing and Learning (part 1)

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Your toddler is much more independent now and enjoys the company of other children. The transition from parallel play to cooperative play is happening steadily, although she will still need your help to manage her feelings when there is a disagreement with another child.

“At this age, play is a wonderful time of make-believe and role-play. The boundaries between fantasy and reality are blurred.”

“As many as two out of three children have one or more imaginary friends who ‘drop in’ from time to time. They usually leave permanently by the time your child is five or six.”

“All children need opportunities to achieve and to feel good about themselves, so it is okay to let your child win sometimes. Don’t make a habit of it, though, since she will notice and feel cheated.”

“It has been amazing to watch Oliver develop since starting preschool. He is less clingy, more social, and increasingly confident.”

—“It has been amazing to watch Oliver develop since starting preschool. He is less clingy, more social, and increasingly confident.”

The biggest change you will notice during the forthcoming year is the dominance of imagination and make-believe in your toddler’s style of play. Her brain has now developed to the stage where she has the ability to hold more than one perspective or point of view in mind, which means that cooperative play with other children (and with you) becomes far easier for her to maintain. Her imagination is developing, as is her understanding and exploration of the difference between fantasy and reality. “Symbolic” or pretend play increases, too: she no longer needs a real car to make her think she’s in a car or a real phone to play at telephones. Three-year-olds have the ability to turn the most mundane items into exciting possibilities for play.

There is no need to force your child to see reality during this period. It is a magical time when stories come alive; and cartoon characters, Santa Claus, fairies, and other mythical characters really do exist in her mind. Let her fantasies continue where they are enjoyable, but be aware that it can be hard for a toddler to know what is real. Sometimes she will become so engrossed in what she is doing or watching that the lines between fantasy and reality blur. She may find it hard to distinguish between them because she finds it hard to hold more than one view in her mind at a time. For example, if someone is dressed up as a lion, she may think it is is a lion. Your toddler has begun to realize that not everyone sees the world the same way that she does. She has started to be able to see the world from another person’s perspective, but has difficulty holding both perspectives in her mind at the same time and so may shift between the two. What something looks like is what it is.

As well as imagining positive fantasy characters, your child will also be able to imagine frightening images. The difficulty with living with an active imagination is that it can lead to fearfulness. This is why it is vital that you supervise her television viewing and try to limit exposure to inappropriate or disturbing images.

Your toddler may enjoy being slightly scared by mild surprises when playing “Boo” or reading books about monsters, but some televised cartoons, movie animations, and special effects can be very scary. Even a movie designated as suitable for a seven-year-old can be totally inappropriate for your preschooler.

Imaginary friends

Children find different ways to deal with, or show, their fears and anxieties, one of which is through the invention of an imaginary friend. This is nothing to be concerned about. The age of 3–4 is the time when imaginary friends may typically become a part of your child’s life. They may sometimes be an indicator of a child feeling anxious and seeking comfort, but this is by no means always the case.

An imaginary friend has many advantages. He, she, or it, is always there to play with and is always cooperative. An imaginary friend will absorb your child’s blame or anger as well as any destructive feelings your toddler may have because she can talk to her imaginary friend and stay in control. In times of fear, her imaginary friend can keep her safe from monsters, shadow faces on the walls, unexplained noises, and fears about new experiences such as going to the doctor. This is a healthy part of development so do not worry or try to stop the companionship. Equally, the friend can be a playmate or companion in adventure. Your child’s imaginary friend will leave when your child doesn’t need her any more.

One word of caution: imaginary friends can also be used as master negotiators! No matter how charming it may seem, resist the temptation to play along if your child uses her imaginary friend to try to dictate routine or avoid the consequences of unacceptable behavior. On the other hand, appreciation of her imaginary friend when he or she is pleasant (for example, helping to set the table or kissing you goodnight) will do no harm and may help your toddler deal with learning to do new things. Imaginary friends should not become a substitute for real friends, however. It is important that your toddler has plenty of opportunities to mix with and get used to her nonimaginary peers.

Top tips for understanding imaginary friends:
  • Accept that having imaginary friends is a natural part of childhood and accept them if they make an appearance.

  • Don’t be dismissive or critical, or deny the friend exists. This phase of imagination won’t last forever. Let your child enjoy it while she can.

  • Don’t be tempted to direct or “adopt” the imaginary friend yourself—let your toddler take the lead.

  • If your toddler seems to be using the imaginary friend to deal with negative feelings, encourage her to talk to you instead.

  • Listen to how your child talks to her friend and watch how she plays with her. The relationship may give you a lot of insight into your child’s thoughts and feelings.

Imaginative play

Children get great enjoyment from creating and playing out imaginary scenes from everyday life, as well as building on scenes they have seen in movies, cartoons, or picture books.

New “Friends”

Listen when she tells you about her imaginary friends—don’t dismiss them. But, equally, don’t allow her to use them to encourage you to give her what she wants.

Lying and cheating

Small lies are a natural part of mental development and show that thinking and reasoning skills are maturing. This doesn’t mean that a lie should go unchallenged, but you shouldn’t worry that it is an indicator that your child will make it a habit. Figuring out the rules of the world and recognizing moral boundaries are skills we apply throughout life. As your child gets older, she will remember the boundaries you have taught her and make judgements that take your stance into account.

The important factor at this age is not the lie itself, but the reason for the lie. Bear in mind that your child is eager to “get things right” and to impress and please you, and so may lie to avoid the consequences of your displeasure. Go over the incident and explain to your child why she should not lie. Children are still very egocentric at this age and so may not relate to your feelings of being upset; so your explanation needs to be clear and simple. She will learn over time, with some repetition on your part. Also praise truth-telling and be honest with yourself about your own traits. If your child notices you aren’t truthful, she may follow your lead.

Cheating at games

Age 3–4 is the time when children first encounter the urge to cheat in games. This is similar to lying, in that they know they will get praise and attention if they win. However, it is an interesting developmental milestone as well, in that a child cannot cheat unless she understands what is going to happen in a game. It shows her reasoning skills and intelligence are developing. She has learned that the act of winning makes her feel good; it builds her self-esteem.

A toddler who is losing a game has several options to vent her frustration: she can end the game by destroying it; she can try to change the rules to suit her needs; or she can cheat. Your child is now old enough to understand a basic explanation of why she should not cheat. Start by explaining why rules are important; explain why fairness is important; and explain that rules apply to everyone (even Mommy and Daddy). If she keeps forgetting what the rules are, have the patience to remind her regularly.

If your child or another toddler destroys the game and ruins the fun for other people, explain why it is unacceptable to behave that way. If necessary, use “time out” techniques to help your child calm herself down and put some distance between her mood and her actions. The consequence of losing out on the fun of the game should help her learn that her actions do not reap rewards and hence make such behavior less likely in the future.

However, although the recalcitrant toddler should be no longer allowed to play the game, continue it with the other children, if possible, so that they do not lose out on the satisfaction of being cooperative and remaining part of the game.

Playing by the rules

It can be tempting to let your child cheat, but try not to since he needs to learn to tolerate the sense of frustration that losing causes.

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