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Your toddler's developing brain
Your child was born with about 100 billion brain cells. As if that's not amazing enough, now that he's a toddler each of those brain cells sends and receives electrical signals, creating connections between them. Through repetition, these connections turn into networks that allow your child to think and learn.
The first three years of your child's life is so important because everything he does with you – from playing to eating, walking, reading, and singing – helps jump-start his brain. By the time your child reaches the age of 3, his brain will grow to have 1,000 trillion connections.
As you expose your toddler to new sights, sounds, and sensations, you open his mind to a bigger, more exciting world. And when you use your imagination with him – "Look, I'm a tiger in the jungle!" or "Let's pretend we're going to Grandma's house" – you spur his brain to forge "imagination pathways" of its own.
How your toddler's imagination works
Because your toddler is just learning to speak, it can be hard to know what she's thinking. But you can see glimmers of imagination when she imitates the things she sees around her (a behavior that emerges around the age of 18 to 20 months). Your toddler might copy the things you're doing, mimic her own daily routine by pretending to feed her stuffed bear or put it down for a nap, or act like the family dog.
How your toddler's imagination builds skills
An active imagination helps your toddler down the road in more ways than you might think.
Communication: Children who play imaginary games or listen to lots of fairy tales, books, or stories spun by those around them tend to have noticeably better communication skills. You may not see the fruits of these activities until your toddler's vocabulary grows in the coming year, but you're laying the foundation for it now.
Self-control: Pretending allows your toddler to be anyone he wants, explore negative emotions, practice things he's learned, and make situations turn out the way he wants them to. Stories in which the three little pigs thwart the big bad wolf, or imaginary games in which your child's teddy bear submits to a bath, give your child a sense that he can be powerful and in control, even in unfamiliar or scary situations.
Problem-solving: Dreaming up imaginary situations teaches your child to think creatively, which can be an asset in solving problems. A study conducted at Case Western Reserve University found that children who are imaginative when they're young tend to keep this quality as they get older and become better problem solvers. Tested later in life, early "imaginators" had more resources to draw on when it came to coping with challenges and difficult situations, such as what to do if they forgot a book they needed for school that day.
How to spark your toddler's imagination
Read books. Reading stories together is a great way to enrich your toddler's fantasy life. Choose books with lots of big, colorful pictures, and enjoy the fact that right now – before your child insists on strict adherence to the printed text – you can make up anything you want. Show her pictures of everything from beetles to boats, make sounds for the animals and vehicles, adopt special voices for different characters, and talk about what happened or might happen to the people or animals in the book.
Share stories. Telling stories that you make up is just as good for your child as reading a book together. And using your child as the main character is a great way to expand her sense of self. Soon enough, your child will start piping up with her own narratives and adventures.
Make music. Although your toddler isn't ready for structured music lessons, you can still fill her world with music. Listen to a variety of tunes together, and encourage her to participate by singing, dancing, or playing toy or homemade instruments.
Limit screen time. When it comes to your toddler watching kids’ shows, movies, or other media, moderation is key. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no media use at all for kids younger than 2, but many parents allow a small amount of screen time. If that's the case in your household, 30 minutes or less is reasonable at this age.
Although it's tempting to use a television or computer screen as an electronic babysitter, it's important to watch along with your child, talking to her about what she’s seeing and observing how she responds.
Encourage pretend play. Children learn a lot from dramatizing events from their daily – and fantasy – lives. When your toddler invents a scenario and plot line and peoples it with characters ("It's Teddy's lunchtime"), she develops social and verbal skills.
She works out emotional issues as she replays scenarios that involve feeling sad, happy, frightened, or safe. Imagining herself as a mommy, doctor, or teacher makes her feel powerful and gives her the experience of being in charge.
Provide props. Almost anything can be a prop for imaginative play, and with toddlers, the simpler the better. A cardboard box becomes a car, ship, or train to ride in, and a towel becomes a superhero's cape. Because most of the action takes place inside your child's head, detailed costumes – such as those specific to particular cartoon characters, for instance – aren't really that helpful.
Providing a special box or trunk to hold pretend paraphernalia can make imaginative games even more of an adventure, especially if you occasionally restock it when your toddler's not looking.
How to delight in your toddler's imagination
Accept his imaginary friend. Experts believe that having an imaginary friend signals a creative and social child who has found a way to manage his fears or concerns. Some studies suggest that as many as half of kids have an imaginary pal at some point.
However, if your child starts blaming the friend 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 pal, rectify the situation (clean up the mess, apologize, whatever) and make it clear that the act was unacceptable.
Enjoy the offbeat. When your child insists on wearing his spaceman outfit to daycare for the third day in a row, you may find yourself in a quandary.
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. Children don't think this way.
When you find yourself forcing a confrontation ("Take off your Halloween costume now"), remember that your toddler doesn't have these boundaries yet, and in the grand scheme, wearing a kooky outfit isn't much to worry about.
Be flexible. Creating and enforcing rules – no hitting with the "sword," for instance – is crucial to your child's ultimate happiness as well as yours. But if and when you can, let your toddler 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 pretend picnic on the living room floor.