What to expect at this age
Get ready to share your house with a princess, a unicorn, Batman, or a Tyrannosaurus rex. Children are hardwired to be imaginative, and your 2-year-old's imagination is kicking into high gear. You may not have noticed it much before, but now that your child is talking more and more, you'll become increasingly privy to his make-believe world.
Although you could just sit by and watch, it's even better if you join in. "A 2-year-old's imagination develops naturally, but there's a lot you can do to spark it," says Kristi Alexander, a pediatric psychologist at Alliant International University in San Diego. "As you expose him to new sights, sounds, and sensations, you open his mind to a bigger world." At each stage of your child's imaginative development, listening to him and taking part in his games (when you're welcome, of course) will help you keep up with what he's thinking. And who knows? You might revitalize your own imagination in the process.
How your 2-year-old's imagination works
Your 2-year-old's imagination is evolving right along with his ability to think abstractly — the couch transforms into a space ship, his toast is a dinosaur marching across his plate. This ability shows he's moving beyond the imitative play that younger children tend to engage in, and it will continue to flourish as he gets older.
Why encouraging imagination is important
An active imagination helps your 2-year-old in more ways than you might think.
Improving vocabulary. Children who play imaginary games or listen to lots of fairy tales, stories read aloud from books, or tales spun by those around them tend to have noticeably better vocabularies.
Taking control. Pretending lets your 2-year-old be anyone he wants, practice things he's learned, and make situations turn out the way he wants. Stories where the three little pigs thwart the big bad wolf or playacting games in which your child's teddy bear learns to use the potty give him a sense that he can be powerful and in control even in unfamiliar situations.
Learning social rules. Getting along socially can be tricky at any age. When your 2-year-old joins the other kids in the sandbox to create a castle out of sand, sticks, and leaves, he's not only exploring a fantasy world, he's learning complex, real-world rules about sharing, social interaction, and resolving conflicts.
Solving problems. Dreaming up imaginary situations teaches your child to think creatively in real life. A study at Case Western Reserve University found that young children who are imaginative tend to remain so as they get older and to become better problem solvers. Tested later in life, early "imaginators" were more resourceful when it came to coping with challenges and difficult situations, such as what to do if they forgot to bring a book to school they needed that day.
What you can do to spark your 2-year-old's imagination
Read books. Reading stories together about unfamiliar lands and people is a good way to fuel your child's fantasy life, and picture books that expand his vocabulary of words and images will help, too. (How can you imagine being a turtle if you've never seen one?) Choose books with lots of big, colorful pictures and enjoy the fact that right now — before your child learns to read and insists on strict adherence to the printed text — you can make up anything you want. Show him pictures of everything from beetles to pinwheels, make sounds for the animals and vehicles, adopt special voices for the different characters, and talk about what happened or might happen to the people or animals in the book.
Share stories. Telling your own made-up stories is just as good for your child's imagination as reading a book together. Not only will your tales provide a sense of possibilities for his inventive thinking, they'll demonstrate the basics of creating characters and plots. And using your child as the main character is a great way to expand his sense of self. Before long, your child will share his own narratives and adventures. Don't worry if he copies you at first — that's how children learn.
Another idea: Trade off lines of a story. While you're driving, say to him, "Once upon a time there was a dog. He lived with a little boy, and they liked to go to the park. One day..." Then give your child a turn. If he's not up to adding a whole line, ask him to name the boy and the dog.
Relish his artwork. When your child draws a picture, rather than trying to guess what it is, ask him to interpret it for you. (Unless he's a budding Rembrandt, chances are you'd guess wrong anyway.) Instead of "What a beautiful house!" say, "What cool colors you've used! What's happening in this picture?"
Make music. He may not be ready for piano lessons, but you can still fill his world with music. Listen to a variety of tunes together, and encourage him to participate by singing, dancing, or playing homemade or toy instruments.
Encourage pretend play. Children learn a lot from dramatizing events from their daily — and fantasy — lives. When your child invents a scenario and plot line and peoples it with characters ("I'm the daddy and you're the baby and you're sick"), he develops social and verbal skills. He'll work out emotional issues as he replays scenarios that involve feeling sad, happy, frightened, or safe. Imagining himself as a superhero, a horse, or a wizard makes him feel powerful and gives him a sense of what it's like to be in charge. He also develops his understanding of cause and effect as he imagines how a frog or a dog would behave in a particular situation.
Provide props. Towels become turbans, plastic bracelets become precious jewels, old bathroom rugs turn into magic carpets, and that moth-eaten collection of stuffed animals transforms itself into a rain forest, animal hospital, or farm. Believe it or not, the best props for imaginative play are often generic ones. Since most of the action takes place inside your child's head, detailed costumes modeled on specific cartoon or storybook characters aren't really the ticket here.
Providing a special box or trunk to hold pretend paraphernalia can make playtime even more of an adventure, especially if you occasionally restock it when your child's not looking ("Let's see what's in the trunk today!"). Including more than one of the same item is nice too, since two pirates or princesses are always better than one.
Limit TV time. When it comes to your child's TV viewing, less is better. There are some excellent programs that teach kids, say, how a baby kangaroo behaves or first lessons in the alphabet, and you can record shows to provide quality programming at convenient times. But don't overdo it.
Movies and TV shows tend to limit a budding imagination since they do the visualizing for your child, says Michael Meyerhoff, executive director of Epicenter, a parenting information center in Illinois. If your 2-year-old does watch TV, keep it to less than an hour a day. Resist the temptation to use it as an electronic babysitter; instead, sit and watch along with him, posing questions, expanding on ideas presented in the show or movie, and finding out what he responds to most.
How to live with your 2-year-old's imagination
Set limits. Creating and enforcing rules — no hitting with the "sword" — is crucial for everyone's sake. But if you can, let your child live for a bit with the reminders of his flights of fancy. The fact that the dining room table isn't available for dinner because it's currently serving as an igloo gives you the perfect excuse to have a "picnic" on the living room floor.
Accept his imaginary friend. Experts believe that having an imaginary friend is a sign of a creative, social child who's found a way to help manage his own fears or concerns. Some studies suggest as many as half of all kids have an imaginary pal at some point.
However, if your child starts blaming the buddy for something he did, it's time for a reality check. You don't need to accuse him of lying, but do address the behavior. Have your child, along with the imaginary sidekick, rectify the situation (clean up the mess, apologize, whatever) and make it clear the act was unacceptable.
Keep messes manageable. Yes, reenacting the story of Hansel and Gretel might lead to a trail of crumbs through the living room. If you have the space, it's a good idea to designate a room, or part of a room, as an arts and crafts corner, where your child is free to create without worrying about making a mess.
Some containment strategies can also help: Old button-down shirts make great smocks when worn backwards with the sleeves cut off, plastic sheeting under the Play-Doh construction site can protect the rug, and large sheets of butcher paper over the crafts table can prevent an encrusted layer of multicolored paints or glue.
Enjoy the offbeat. When your child insists on wearing his spaceman outfit to daycare for the third day in a row, it's tempting to intervene. Adults are socialized to draw strict lines between public and private behavior — your funky gray sweatpants and rabbit slippers are fine around the house, but not at a restaurant — and it's hard to realize children don't think that way. But if you find yourself forcing a confrontation ("Take off your Halloween costume now"), remember that your 2-year-old doesn't recognize these boundaries yet, and consider letting it go. In the grand scheme of things, a kid in a kooky outfit may not be worth worrying about.