Symbolic Play

Symbolic play

Symbolic play is the ability of children to use objects, actions or ideas to represent other objects, actions, or ideas as play. A child may push a block around the floor as a car or put it to his ear as a cell phone.1

At around 8 months of age, as their symbolic thinking develops, children become familiar with objects, actions, and ideas through observation and exploration. An early example of symbolic play would be a child making noise with their baby toys by banging them or shaking them.2 As the child shows understanding of the object’s use, he may pick up a comb and touch his hair.3

At around 18 months of age, children begin to engage in pretend play and use one object to represent another, like drinking from an empty cup or pretending to feed a doll.4 A toddler’s play is much more connected to imagination, with sticks becoming boats and brooms becoming horses. Their play is mostly solitary, assigning roles to inanimate objects like their dolls and teddy bears.5

Preschoolers, from ages 3 to 5 years, are more capable of imagining roles behind their pretend play. Their play becomes more social, and they enjoy make-believe play. They assign roles to themselves and others involving several sequenced steps often with a predetermined plan, like pretending to be at the doctor’s office or having a tea party.6

As children advance linguistically, cognitively, and socially, their play begins to include fantasy, drama, and imitation. Socio-dramatic play is the most advanced form of symbolic play and requires the use of imagination to carry out their roles.7 Children learn skills in negotiation, listening, sharing, taking turns, and respecting others’ feelings, thoughts, ideas, and physical space through socio-dramatic play.8

Parents, day care centers, and schools can enhance the child’s ability to play make-believe by providing loose parts that have more than one purpose, such as building blocks, boxes and nonrealistic materials that can be imagined symbolically as other objects. Costumes, props, and themed settings, such as play grocery stores or doll houses, all allow for pretend play.9

  • 1. “Foundation: Symbolic Play” California Department of Education. < > 20 Aug. 2010.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Frost, Joe L., Sue Wortham, and Stuart Reifel. Play and Child Development. Upper Saddle Valley, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001. p.129.
  • 4. Op. cit., California Department of Education.
  • 5. Frost, Joe L., Pei-San Brown, John A. Sutterby, Candra D. Thornton, The Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International, 2004. p. 23.
  • 6. Op. cit., California Department of Education.
  • 7. Op. cit., Frost, Wortham, Reifel. p. 186.
  • 8. Op. cit., Frost, Brown, Sutterby, Thornton. pp. 24-25.
  • 9. Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey. “Symbolic Thought: Play, Language, and Literacy in the Preschool Years” Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective, 3rd ed., Prentice Hall. < > 20 Aug. 2010.