How Fantasy Games Help Children Cope with Life

Dressing up and playing make-believe games is a natural means of expression for children
By Laura Twiggs

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It may seem like no more than ‘child’s play’, but dressing up as Spiderman, a pirate, a snow fairy or even a rampaging rhinoceros is an essential part of growing up and may even give your child a learning advantage over others. But should parents ever be concerned with fantasy play?
 
Experts say behaviour like this is no cause for alarm, particularly at a young age.
 
At the forefront of play theory are Americans Dorothy and Jerome Singer, authors and the directors of the Yale Family Television Research and Consultation Center. They call the age of four ‘peak season’ for fantasy play, and even say that if parents and teachers are trained to engage in make-believe play with three- to five-year-olds, it can “considerably” strengthen the children’s ability and skills for doing well when they hit school.
 
They say that when children engage with make-believe play, pretending to be dragons, imps, trolls, the president, cowboys or even a baby, they’re “practising the social, emotional and intellectual skills they’ll rely on in life”. Even dressing up as a baby takes on an altogether benign connotation when you consider that, from the child’s perspective, the baby seems to be the most powerful member of the family.
 
Someone who has concerns about her child’s take on fantasy dress-up play is Thandiwe, a Johannesburg-based legal secretary. Her five-year-old, Oliver, loves to ‘dress up’ and act like a street child, sniffing his sleeve, even though he has no idea that it indicates glue sniffing, limping, whining and begging. She finds it uncomfortable, to say the least.
 
Again, the experts say this is just another instance of a child playing out deep-seated fears (of neglect, abandonment, being orphaned and poor), and the playing out of these fears allows the child a sense of mastery over them.
 
Practising to be Grown Up
 
Cape Town-based educational psychologist Dave Pinchuck explains that fantasy play and dressing up in particular are ways in which children ‘practise’ to be grown up.
 
“It helps them to feel like they’re in charge and in control,” he says. “It’s an example of them trying out other roles and other ways of being in the world, in a way that is unconscious. It can even help them to develop empathy. Parents should remember that children generally feel quite small and powerless in the world. Dressing up can be a learning experience, and fantasy play and dressing up are essential parts of development.”
 
He adds that through fantasy life and fairy tales, children resolve issues and difficulties that they can’t otherwise even express. For children, play is the natural medium of expression.
 
Johannesburg-based psychologist Debbie Bright concurs, saying, “Children are fascinated by their environment, and believe in the possibility of the metaphysical. Different costumes afford them opportunity to experiment with different roles, experience different emotions and sensations, and stimulate their minds beyond the concrete.”
 
Play Reveals Inner State
 
Play in children works in much the same way as play in wild animals, who learn every survival skill they will need for later life by pretend-stalking, -pouncing and general rough-and-tumble, mostly initiated and encouraged by their parents.
 
And if parents do take note, says Bright, they may find they have access to what she calls ‘the language of the child’. “If one can tune into the messages the child is portraying, it can be incredibly rewarding,” she says. “Children play what they see, and watching their play can give telling clues to their inner state,” adds Pinchuck.
 
But no matter what they play at or who they ‘are’ when they dress up, it’s vital to retain a sense of reality, too. It’s crucial for children to understand that although they can pretend to be someone else, they will always be themselves. As Pinchuck says, “It’s great for a child to feel as powerful in the world as Superman, but you don’t want him to jump off a building.”
 
Violent or Disturbing Play
 
Don’t be alarmed if your child’s fantasy play or dressing up occasionally tends towards the violent or seemingly antisocial.
 
Gerard Jones, author of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, says that violent games mean different things to children than they do to adults, and parents should not ‘impose’ their understanding on children. He points out that, very often, children are more interested in a game’s emotional meaning, and not its literal one. By engaging with fantasy figures, even those that are destructive, children can “help themselves feel in control of these forces”, explains Jones. It can assist them in integrating scary feelings and aggression.
 
Debbie Bright agrees, adding that parents should not be concerned about violent episodes in play ‘within reason’. “Obviously it is not a good idea for children to be viewing, and subsequently re-enacting, violent TV, but as long as there is anger being expressed in a contained environment, it is probably okay. No other children should be scared or hurt, at all. If this continues for long, it may be worthwhile to consult a therapist, to assess whether perhaps there is some significant underlying trauma or anger,” she says.
 
Pinchuck agrees that the line should be drawn around ‘whether anyone is getting hurt’. “But remember, too, that children feel very guilty after they’ve been responsible for hurting anyone, and if they don’t, it may indicate a problem,” he adds.
 
“This is why it’s vital to have parents around while children play freely, even though they shouldn’t be interfering in the play. They might be needed to resolve something, or to mediate. Children don’t have the same controls as adults and need the sense of boundaries in order to feel safe, which they can’t provide for themselves. When they become too hyped or things run away in their games, it helps to have a calming chat with an adult, and a forum in which they can calmly discuss harms to others and harms to themselves.”
 
Children’s play reflects what’s going on around them, says Pinchuck. “If there’s any concern you have, it’s a good idea not to jump to alarmist conclusions but to remain calm,” he says. “No matter how concerned you might feel, it’s always a good idea to start with the least intrusive methods of intervention.”

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