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Toddler Talk: Imaginary Play

“Choo-Choo!” my eighteen month old son pushed the toy train around the tracks at the children’s museum.

Toy transportation, such as trains, cars, trucks, boats and planes, are popular play items for both boys and girls as they learn about the world around them. Often these are some of the first things children learn about through board books, puzzles and toys.

Not only are they learning about how people move about in the world, but they are also learning that objects can move when they have wheels and wings. Who knew that we were teaching our kids rudimentary physics when we bought that toy car?

Imaginary play is an important milestone for toddlers. When you see your child pretending with a toy train or car, it is a sign of significant brain development. Prior to imaginary play, your child had very concrete thinking—for example, "Here is an object in front of me and I can make it move or cause it to make noise."

Now as an eighteen-month old, he can start to imagine that the truck has a purpose, such as picking up a load of supplies from across the imaginary town. As he has the truck work with the other vehicles, a story unfolds.

When you watch your child engage in pretend play, you are seeing evidence of your child’s creative mind evolving and the very beginning of abstract thinking. Along with this development, you may see your child tell stories and develop imaginary friends.

If your child is not doing any type of pretend play by late toddlerhood, especially by two-years of age, you should consult your child’s doctor. Sometimes this is can be an early sign of abnormal neurologic development and further evaluation should be done to rule out social-behavioral disorders.

During this stage of brain development, your child may also begin having nightmares as his ability to imagine evolves. To reduce the frequency of nightmare or night terrors or even normal nighttime fears, minimize your child’s exposures to potentially scary subjects, including television shows, movies or videos that may be perceived as scary for your child. If your child has nightmares or night terrors, comfort your child and reassure him that he is safe and that you are there to protect him. Many times in the morning the child does not remember what happened at all. So, it is usually harder on us than it is for them!

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