What does your toddler learn from her imagination?

Does your child invite her imaginary friend for tea, or create weird and wonderful splodge paintings? We explain what she’s actually learning with all this crazy stuff


The development of your child’s brain during her toddler years is miraculous – and you can really help. “The circuits in your toddler’s brain are reinforced by what’s happening in her day-to-day life,” explains child psychotherapist Dr Inge Pretorius, who runs a parent-toddler group at the Anna Freud Centre in London. “Everything in her environment shapes the person she will become.” So all that pretend play, painting, chatting to an imaginary friend and gurgling away to you is really good for her. Dr Pretorius reveals how…


Playing let’s pretend

  • What she’s learning: “This is an early example of her developing imagination,” explains Dr Pretorius. “Pretend play helps your child make sense of the world around her. She’s learning that she’s a separate being from you – and everybody else.”
  • Do it today: Show her how you pour out a cup of tea, and then encourage her to ‘pour’ you a cup with her plastic teapot. This enables her to ‘step out’ of herself and pretend to be you.
  • Top tip: “It’s very important to engage with your toddler during this sort of play, so you need to pretend to take the tea and drink it, and join your child in suspending reality,” says Dr Pretorius. “Not only are you encouraging her imagination to develop, but you’re also teaching her the importance of joining in.”

Painting and drawing

  • What she’s learning: At first, painting allows a toddler to be creative with mess and colour. As your tot gets older, she’ll use painting and drawing to tell stories and express herself.
  • Do it today: One way to encourage early painting is through water play – at bath time, for example. “For a one year old, enjoying the sensation of water on her hands leads directly to holding a paintbrush in her hand several months later,” says Dr Pretorius.
  • Top tip: Are there hidden messages in those red-and-puce splodges? Not necessarily, says Dr Pretorius. “Taken out of context, it’s impossible to comment on the content of a child’s drawing. It may indicate something is wrong, but other clues give a fuller picture.”

Imaginary friends

  • What she’s learning: Imaginary friends are common from around the age of two. “They’re a creative way of dealing with the anxiety that comes with growing up and mastering new skills,” explains Dr Pretorius. For example, if your toddler is worried about being unable to control her impulses, she may have a ‘naughty’ friend who goes through mum’s handbag and draws on walls.
  • Do it today: “It’s important you welcome the ‘friend’ into your home,” says Dr Pretorius. “If this means you need to put out an extra bowl of cereal for the ‘friend’, then so be it.”
  • Top tip: The ‘friend’ usually mysteriously disappears once the anxiety is mastered.

Telling fibs

  • What she’s learning: This is nothing to fret about. “Toddlers don’t know where reality ends and fantasy begins,” says Dr Pretorius. “There’s nothing malicious in the tales they weave. It’s just an outlet for their creativity.”
  • Do it today: It may be wish fulfilment, so listen carefully to what your child is saying. For example, a child who tells everyone that her mummy is pregnant could be feeling lonely and wanting a brother or sister.

Having nightmares

  • What she’s learning: Nightmares often surface around the age of three, and are the combination of a vivid imagination colliding with the stresses of everyday toddlerhood.
  • Do it today: “Face nightmares with your child,” says Dr Pretorius. “They often appear as ‘monster under the bed’ fears, so ask her to describe the monster, then say, ‘Let’s turn on the light, because monsters don’t like light!’ Give your child the power to destroy the monster.” Spend some time cuddling, and when you leave turn on her nightlight or some music to soothe her back to sleep.
  • Top tip: It’s important you don’t rubbish her fears by denying the existence of monsters.

Kick-start her imagination

  • Make her curious: Encourage your toddler to wonder about the people and things she sees. “There’s a bus with lots of people on it! I wonder what jobs those people have? Maybe one is a nurse; perhaps that man is a fireman.”
  • Keep it simple: “Basic toys stretch imagination,” says Dr Pretorius. “Colourful blocks are wonderful. Younger toddlers can build towers; older toddlers can build towns or entire worlds!”
  • Read, read, read: Stories about unfamiliar lands and bright, fun picture books will spark her imagination. Make sounds for animals and vehicles, put on funny voices for the characters, and talk about what happened in the story once you’ve finished reading.

How your tot’s brain develops

  • Your baby is born with 100 billion brain cells.
  • By her third birthday, your child’s brain will have more than twice as many connections between cells as your brain has.
  • Your toddler has more of these circuits because the brain ‘prunes back’ the connections it no longer needs – you use it or lose it!

Budget ways to build her mind

Loo rolls make great megaphones, a towel can double-up as a turban and cuddly toys can become patients in a hospital. The simpler the prop, the better, as it encourages your child to create her own magical world inside her head.

Mums’ stories

“Daniel has started giving his toys ‘human’ emotions. His teddy was ‘sore’ after an injection at the doctors, which followed a jab that Daniel had to have, and I think it was his way of dealing with the upset.”

Jackie Myles, 44, from Berkshire, mum to Joe, 11, and Daniel, 2

“Imaginary friends are very important to Sam. Generally, they’re fairly undemanding, but last month he got very upset after football as he’d invited his whole imaginary team home for tea, and we couldn’t ‘fit’ them all in our car. Luckily, he bought into the idea that they could follow us home in their own (imaginary) car – I just had to make sure that I didn’t drive too fast, and had to keep waving out the window!”

Marie Browne, 29, from Leicester, mum to Sam, 4

“A lot of Freya’s play-world is inside her head. Typically, she’s a princess, I’m a scary dinosaur, and her baby brother is the handsome prince. She also acts out ‘scary’ scenarios in a way that reassures her. For example, daddy is a robber, and I’m the policeman who has to arrest him. A couple of months ago we did have a few issues with nightmares, and had to check the garden at night for monsters. Respecting her fears seemed to help get her through that phase more quickly.”


Lucy Turner, 33, from Essex, is mum to Freya, 3, and Charlie, 1

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