Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Let's Pretend

Ryan has a toy with four Sesame Street characters on it: Oscar in his trash can, Elmo in a big toy block, Ernie in his bathtub (with Rubber Ducky, of course), and Cookie Monster in a cookie jar. Each one pops up and sings his signature song (“I Love Trash”, “That’s Elmo’s Song”, “Rubber Ducky”, and “C Is For Cookie”, respectively), when Ryan turns a crank or flips a switch or pushes a button or slides a lever. He’s been able to push the Elmo button for a while, and he’s just learning to turn the crank for Oscar and manage the switch and the lever for the other two. Fortunately for himself, he’s discovered that he doesn’t have to master the intricacies of the mechanisms, because he’s strong enough to manually pry open each character – brute force does occasionally win out over delicate manipulation. But he completely astonished me yesterday when he pried open Cookie Monster, then announced, “Mmmmm!!!”, pretended to pull out the cookie in Cookie Monster’s hand, pantomimed putting it into his mouth, said, “Mmmmm!” again, and then repeated the process, handing ME the imaginary cookie. Wow, he understands pretending!

On the surface, pretending doesn’t seem all that complicated. You’re just doing what you would normally do, only some of the things you’re using aren’t really there. But if you stop and think about it, it’s a pretty “out there” concept. Children’s thinking tends to be very concrete – when they’re very small, they can’t even understand that something still exists when they can’t see it. It’s a major developmental milestone when you hide a toy under a blanket and the child knows to look under the blanket for it. So to me, it’s an even more major milestone when a child not only understands that something is there when they can’t see it, but that they can act like they can see it when it isn’t there.

What’s especially amazing to me about Ryan making this huge cognitive leap is that I haven’t done a lot of pretending with him yet. He does occasionally offer me food, and if it’s something I don’t eat (like oranges or cantaloupe, yuck), I’ll pretend to take a bite. But I don’t generally pantomime things for him. When I’m helping him put his coat on, I don’t act out putting the coat on, I simply hold up a sleeve and push his hand toward the opening and let him do the rest. If I want him to put his blocks back in their box, I don’t pretend to put a block in, I actually take a block and put it in, then take it out again and give it to him, saying, “YOU do it.” But even without my example, he’s figured out the magic of “pretend”. Wow. That’s pretty amazing. Not bad for a kid whose entire vocabulary consists of “bye-bye” and “up”.

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