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How parents can play supporting roles to their leading princesses and pirates.

By Elizabeth Heubeck

When my daughter was 3, she’d often come into the kitchen in the morning and go directly to the toy drawer, in a bottom cabinet that she could reach, and inform me that she needed her tail.
After all, most cats have tails.
Depending on where we had to go that day, I’d reluctantly safety pin the tail—made of brushed velveteen fabric in a leopard print, and stuffed to give it shape—to the backside of her pants. Sometimes, we’d have disagreements about which places she could be a cat. Preschool, for instance, wasn’t one of them.
Eventually, my daughter no longer wanted to be a cat, and the tail remained tucked away in the drawer.
Then, when my son turned 3, someone gave him a Superman cape for his birthday. For the next year, I lived with Superman and his amazing strength and ability to “save the day.”

About a year later, just as fervently as he had believed in his Superman powers, he discarded the cape for good.
Now, when I see other preschoolers sporting capes and tutus and clutching wands and swords, I get it. Or at least I can claim familiarity with the practice. But I never really understood why so many little ones passionately throw themselves into role play, then suddenly abandon their beloved costumes and move on.
Now I do.
For insight into this whimsical practice, I consulted Brenda Hussey-Gardner, a child developmental specialist and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland Medical Center. She explained why some youngsters swear they’re Superman, and how parents can play supporting roles to their leading princesses and pirates.

Role Playing for a Reason
First of all, Hussey-Gardner assures parents of 3-year-olds that they are not crazy, mistaken, or alone. (The kids, not the parents. That’s another story.) Pretend play is a legitimate and extremely common pastime of preschoolers. And there’s a good reason for it.

“Toddlers’ cognitive and social skills make their pretend dramatic skills come to life,” says Hussey-Gardner. “This dramatic pretend play allows them to fulfill their desire to be like the people they look up to.”
Before age 3, children are too egocentric to recognize possibilities beyond themselves, she explains. Then, at around age 3, that changes.

“They no longer see the world from just their perspective,” she adds. “It allows them to take on different roles.”
Pretend play also gives 3-year-olds an outlet for expressing their new-found knowledge about animals, superheroes, or whoever or whatever else they find interesting.
“Earlier than that, they don’t understand the concepts of, for example, animals and what they do. Some of the pretend play is a way of solidifying the knowledge they have,” says Hussey-Gardner.

Your Supporting Role
Your preschooler may think he’s a firefighter, but remember, you’re still the boss. And you get to decide when it’s okay for him to wear his yellow boots and fire hat, and when it’s not. And, while there’s no right or wrong answer, Hussey-Gardner advises consistency. If he or she can wear a certain outfit to the grocery store once, you’ve set a precedent you should stick to. If specific places are off-limits, then they should remain that way.
Most youngsters happily discard their costumes by the time they’re 4 or 5. But some cling to them somewhat obsessively, using them much like a security blanket. If this seems to be the case, says Hussey-Gardner, parents may be rightfully concerned.

“It can be a time when they can really channel fears and problems and work them out,” Hussey-Gardner says.
Not wanting to let go of the costume may mean a child is still trying to work out a fear or unresolved issue in his or her mind that he or she can’t, or doesn’t feel comfortable, expressing in plain language. A child could be having trouble with a new situation at home or at school, a transition, or other unsettling change.
That’s why child therapists often use play therapy to get their young patients to reveal what’s on their minds, says Hussey-Gardner.

That’s also why she advises parents not to force their children to give up role-playing costumes cold-turkey. Typically, children will abandon them on their own, moving on to another phase that equally excites them.
Until then, Hussey-Gardner suggests that parents enjoy this phase while it lasts.
“If you allow kids to lead the play, they’ll take you places you never imagined,” she says. BC

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© Baltimore’s Child Inc. May 2011

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