Symbolic play (or pretend play) is a highlight of childhood. Remember when toy food and plates set the stage for an elaborate lunch served to stuffed animals? Or when picnic tables at the park were pirate ships, and long sticks from the ground were swords?
Symbolic play is the ability to use objects, actions or ideas to represent other objects, actions, or ideas during play. Before symbolic play, a block is a block. After, a block can be a car, a phone, or anything your little one imagines it to be.
Engaging in this play is one of the most important tasks of childhood. It lays the foundation for several other areas of development, which we’ll explore below.
When Does Symbolic Play Develop?
Symbolic play develops between 18-20 months. Here we’ll look at stages of play from birth to 24 months:
Before 18 months: Play is based on exploration and imitation. Towards the end of this stage your child may imitate actions she has observed, like bringing a toy cup to her mouth, but for the most part objects are still used for their intended purposes.
18-24 months: Towards the beginning of this stage, a cognitive shift occurs as your child begins to understand that one thing can represent another thing. A stone in the yard becomes a car that she pushes on the ground.
She starts to play with stuffed animals or dolls as if they are real. She puts a stuffed giraffe to bed on the couch, or feeds a doll with a spoon from her toy kitchen.
Around 24 months: Symbolic play enters a new phase as your child begins to act out sequences. Before putting her stuffed giraffe to bed, she feeds him dinner and washes his face. These sequences become more sophisticated as she moves towards age 3.
Symbolic play continues to evolve and become increasingly complex throughout childhood.
Why is Symbolic Play Important?
Symbolic play is integral to your child’s development in several ways, including:
- Helping her develop language, which includes speech, vocabulary, and expressing and understanding thoughts, feelings, ideas and concepts.
- Building executive function, which encompasses planning, organizing, and completing tasks.
- Laying the groundwork for later acquisition of reading, writing, and math skills. Letters, numbers, words and equations are all symbols. This play is her first experience using symbols to represent things and solve problems.
- Nurturing her social-emotional skills. A tea party where dolls converse and share food supports her understanding of social interaction. A stuffed animal being mean to another stuffed animal may represent something she has observed and is trying to make sense of. Comforting a crying doll reinforces empathy.
- Encouraging creativity. This play offers her endless opportunities to be creative as she uses objects to represent other things and acts out increasingly complex scenarios.
How Can You Encourage Symbolic Play?
- Play! Being an actor in your child’s imaginary world is one of the best ways to encourage and motivate her to engage in this important play.
- Be mindful of the toys you offer her. Toys like play kitchens, doctor kits, and costumes, as well as toys without batteries that can be used in multiple ways (blocks, balls, dolls, cars) are all great for encouraging imagination and creativity.
- Give your child plenty of time to play unrestricted by equipment like seats, swings, and activity centers. Screen time can also interfere with symbolic play. Our article on screen time has great information about how to manage this part of modern life.
One of the best things about symbolic play is the opportunity to connect with your child. Even after a long day when mustering up the energy to play is hard, pretending to thoroughly enjoy the soup she makes you by putting a plastic orange and felt broccoli into a toy bowl will delight her. And, it will probably be the best thing you tasted all day.