When you have a good imagination you are never alone! You can be transported to a world of make-believe where none of your worries exist. You can be as good or otherwise as you like and you can create friends to play alongside you. My youngest daughter often goes to an imaginary land, when I asked her what she loved about it she replied, “Vegetables are unhealthy and sweets are healthy!” So in your imagination you can eat whatever you like too! My forthcoming book Calling All Superheroes also explores the importance of fantasy play in child development. This article touches upon some of the issues it raises.

According to the Oxford dictionary fantasy is defined as, ‘The faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things’ (OUP, 2019a). This is opposed to the definition of reality which is, ‘A thing that exists in fact, having previously only existed in one’s mind’ (OUP, 2019b). Fantasy play is when children use their imagination and play out scenarios which are impossible or improbable, for example, having superpowers as a superhero.

Practitioners within Early Childhood Education settings are mindful of the importance of starting with concrete, hands-on, real experiences when working with young children and building on their prior knowledge. It is vital that we continue to use hands-on, real life examples so that the children can explore using their senses. Yet, whilst keeping it real, we must also encourage pretence and fantasy play. This type of play feeds children’s creativity and helps them to use their imagination. It is a natural way for children to play and we must engage in this with young children. Many educators naturally incorporate elements of pretence into their settings which also keeps magic alive. I have tried to do this within my own practice and been inspired by great authors such as Vivian Gussan-Paley (2010, 1984) and Jenny Tyrrell (2001).

Children are excellent players and do not distinguish between fantasy and reality play. They move easily between the two. I was reminded of this when I observed two boys in a preschool setting pretending to be werewolves recently! In their game they were able to breathe fire and began toasting marshmallows for their friends on the fire. They were being careful not to burn their mouths on the hot marshmallows, thus moving easily between the fantasy of being werewolves and breathing fire to the pretence of toasting marshmallows on the fire and the notions of reality in potentially burning their mouths on the hot marshmallows. Imaginings within the fantasy realm also invoke real feelings, so if we feel good during this play, we will have a positive emotion which outlives the fantasy. A child who exclaims, “I can fly like Superman!” feels powerful and strong and these are real feelings, albeit which stem from fantasy.

Again, I was reminded of this when a practitioner told me about her son. He had a condition which required him to have regular blood tests from about the age of 2 ½. She bought him an Iron Man suit in advance of attending which she intended to be a reward for having the blood test. Her son, however, had other ideas! He wanted to wear it to the hospital because he knew that Iron Man was powerful and strong and nothing could hurt him when he is wearing his suit. So this little boy wore his Iron Man suit each time he attended the hospital and it helped him to feel strong enough to cope with the regular blood tests. This is a great example of how some elements of fantasy play, and, in particular, superhero play can be immensely empowering for the children.

Young children begin pretend play from around 18 months and this develops into more refined role play, real or fictional at about three years old (German & Leslie, 2001). However, by around 6 years, most children have still not fully grasped the difference between knowing something and believing it. Thus early childhood educators are working with children who are learning to distinguish between fantasy and reality, pretend and real. There will be times when these lines are very blurred. You only need to have observed children playing a make believe game to know that they are fully engrossed in this play, they are that character at that moment, in their minds they are not pretending. I was reminded of this recently when I asked my youngest daughter if she was pretending to be the doctor, “No”, she replied, “I am a doctor!” That certainly put me in my place and I was left in no doubt about how seriously fantasy and make believe play is taken by children.

After approximately seven years Kitson (2010) suggests that if fantasy play is not actively encouraged it slowly diminishes. One way that we can keep the magic of fantasy play alive is through pretence and superhero play. These themes continue to engage older children, teenagers and adults as demonstrated by the amount of media attention dedicated to superheroes. Pretence is the ability to play with an object as if it were something else, or take on a role as another person. There are considerable overlaps with fantasy play, which is linked with the improbable and impossible, however, pretending can be more closely linked to reality. Children rarely distinguish between the two and we need to learn not to as well!

There are many noted benefits for children engaging in this type of fantasy and make-believe play. It:
  • Encourages imagination and creativity.
  • Builds children’s confidence as they experience the freedom to ‘be’ whomever or whatever they want to be.
  • Enables children to deal with real life scenarios in a safe environment.
  • Provides an opportunity for children to play games involving social rules, cooperation and collaboration.
  • Encourages children to empathise with others.
  • Offers children a place to escape from the real world.
  • Usually involves a narrative and acts as a type of therapy as children talk through scenarios and possibilities.
  • Helps children to deal with changes in their lives.
  • Allows children an element of control in their lives - e.g. they can put toppings on a pizza that their parent wouldn’t normally allow!
  • Improves children’s language and communication skills and is a great opportunity for extending children’s vocabulary.
  • Provides an opportunity for children to negotiate roles and understand rules and boundaries.
  • Allows children to problem solve and resolve conflicts themselves.
  • Can counter stereotypes and discrimination as boys can play at being a mummy and girls at being superman.
  • Offers opportunities for children to explore different emotions and practice emotional control and self-regulation.
  • Nurtures children’s dispositions such as resilience, perseverance and a ‘can-do’ attitude.
  • Develops children’s cognitive skills and provides opportunities for literacy and numeracy.
  • Enhances children’s understanding of the world and how things work.
  • Allows children to practise fine and gross motor skills.
  • Is fun! As educators we are always looking for the purposes in play – we should value this play intrinsically!

For references please visit parenta.com/references-tg

About the author

Useful Childcare Contacts and resources

Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk

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