Shortly after my daughter started playschool, she began to play a make-believe game where she pretended to be a cat. She would crawl on all fours, meow and sometimes carry toys in her teeth.
Over time, I realised she was playing this game to the exclusion of others. She began to insist on eating directly from her plate at supper time and drinking water from a bowl. She wouldn’t respond to her name, only “Kitty”.
I admit, her nickname is in fact Kitty (and also even Cat and Kitten) so I wondered if perhaps we had confused her in her younger years and caused this crisis of identity.
Ask the experts
Luckily, her playgroup teacher assured me that this was normal, but I wanted to know more, so I spoke to a Clinical Psychologist, Tsholo Jood, who works in the Children's Unit at Tara Hospital in Hurlingham, Johannesburg.
She told us at Parent24 that imaginative play is a fundamental developmental process, and that my daughter pretending to be a cat was normal and age appropriate.
“Pretend play also exposes grownups to the child’s perspective of the world and the various things they are grappling with, in their daily lives,” she revealed.
Tsholo says parents need to be curious about the nature of play their children engage in, and that noticing how a child plays gives greater understanding of their psychological well-being.
When should parents ever be concerned about imaginative play?
The only time any sort of imaginative play is worrying, is when a child uses play to get out of taking age-appropriate responsibility for their actions, or it hinders them from functioning normally, like going to preschool, or it is harming them in any way.
Why do pre-schoolers love pretending to be animals?
Animals evoke a lot of curiosity in children because of how different they are from humans.
Children are aware of the domestic animals around them and they learn to appreciate the companionship they provide. Children incorporate their surroundings in their imaginative play, and if animals are significant members in their families, they may pretend to be them.
Children know they are vulnerable and dependent on grownups and they may see the same vulnerability in animals. They may appreciate this shared experience and show appreciation through imaginative play.
Pretending to be animals may also help them learn to empathise with their vulnerability, which is something that can also be extended to their interactions with people.
Should parents put boundaries on this play?
Parents should put boundaries on all types of play only if it proves to be disruptive in daily life. Children need help understanding that there is a time for playing (which should be encouraged by parents) and a time for them to participate in meaningful activities grounded in reality.
An example of how a parent could do this appropriately, would be to say to the child “I can see that you really enjoy playing. You have to do homework now, and then may go back to playing after you have finished your homework task.”
This does not shame the child for wanting to play, and also sets limits for the child.
Does your child engage in imaginative play like this too?
Share your stories and questions with us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anonymous contributions are welcome.
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