Symbolic play is when children use one object (or action or sound), to represent something else. It is an integral part of a child’s development which is universal and intrinsically derived.Other types of play may involve symbolic play, such as role-plays and pretend play.
The most notable theorists on symbolic play are Piaget (1945) and Vygotsky (1967).
There are many slightly different definitions of symbolic play, such as “…the kind of play in which children use one thing, such as an object or language, to serve as a “signifier” (e.g., a stick), to represent the meaning of another entity, the “signified” (e.g., a horse)” (Göncü& Gaskins, 2012,p. 48).
Morris (1998) reveals that Plato wrote about children’s play (paidia), in Laws (643 bce), and offered an insight into the value of play that is echoed today:
“play is a medium of activity in which the player’s natural underlying dispositionsare revealed…and… (is)…the ideal mediumof a child’s paideia; that is, learning is mosteffective when play is its medium” (p.114).
Symbolic Play Examples
- Using a cardboard box as a house, spaceship, or dump truck
- Pretending that a jump rope is a snake as the child lays it on the ground and makes it slither
- Drawing three stick figures on paper and saying it’s a drawing of the family having dinner
- Shaping a sheet of black paper into a cone and wearing it as a wizard’s hat
- Putting a block of wood next to their ear and pretending to talk on the phone like mom and dad
- Saying that a yellow cup is mango juice and a green cup is kiwi juice
- Making a “bang” sound when two kids smash their toy cars together
- Sitting around a small table with playmates and sipping tea from small wooden letter blocks
- Using a straw as a sword
- Making the sounds of a siren while pretending to drive a fire- engine
Detailed Example: Boxes as Houses
It seems that all children enjoy pretend play about a house. If they don’t have a doll-house to play with, that’s okay. They’ll just use some boxes to represent a house and a toy animal to represent somebody in the family.
That’s exactly what we see in the above video. This toddler has arranged some small wooden letter boxes to form the shape of a house. She is using a small wooden pig to represent a family member.
As she moves the pig up and down, she narrates her actions, much to the delight of her mom. There are cartoon animals shown on the boxes, and the little girl moves the pig next to them. In the child’s imagination, they are probably interacting in some way, possibly mimicking behaviors she has seen in her family.
This toddler’s actions are a classic demonstration of symbolic play; objects are being used to represent something else in the child’s world. This kind of symbolic play allows children to exercise their creativity, organize events they experience in real life, and improves their language skills.
Benefits of Symbolic Play
1. Symbolic Play and Language Development
Do children develop symbolic play and language skills independently, or are these two developmental milestones interrelated?
This was the question addressed by Orr and Geva (2015). First, the researchers trained data collectors to make bi-weekly in-home visits to families with children 6 to 18 months of age.
Fifty objects were presented to the babies and their play behavior was videotaped for one hour. The objects differed in terms of size, shape, color, and texture.
The videos were later analyzed and coded according to: the type of symbolic play (e.g., single object action, or object sequence actions) and vocal output (e.g. babbling, one-word utterances). This classification scheme produced a total of 288 symbolic play scenes.
Analysis of the video recordings revealed that single-object play emerged at approximately 8 months of age, single-object sequences at 10 months, and multiple-object play and sequences at around 12 months. Babbling occurred at approximately 10 months and one-word utterances at around 12 months.
The results point to the importance of symbolic play in later linguistic development.
According to the researchers, “The key finding of this study is the primary role played by the initiation of single-object play in the long-term progression of all symbolic and audio-vocal milestones that arise thereafter” (p. 157).
2. Seeing from Other Perspectives
Role-playing is a form of symbolic play. It’s not only fun, but it can also help children develop perspective-taking skills, which is a component of empathy and emotional intelligence. For this reason, many teachers like to integrate role-playing activities into their students’ lessons.
For example, to help children understand the value of conservation and preserving animal habitats, a third-grade teacher has designed a clever role-playing activity.
First, she creates a mock jungle habitat in one corner of the classroom. Then she has several children play different roles in a play. The roles consist of: a mother tiger, two cubs, tourists, tour guide, hotel owner, and poacher.
The play involves two scenes. In scene one, the tiger and cubs play together as the tourists take photos. At the end of the scene, the tourists return to the hotel, pay for their room and dinner, and then go to bed. The hotel owner expresses gratitude.
In scene two, the poacher kidnaps the tigers and sells them to three different zoos. The tourists return to the habitat and see nothing, so they check out of the hotel and go home. The hotel owner looks quite sad.
The students run the play for a week, each time taking turns playing different roles. The next week, the teacher holds a class discussion wear students take turns wearing the hat for each role and talking about what happened from that character’s point of view.
3. Role-Playing, Batman, and Executive Function (EF)
Role-playing is a form of symbolic play and a common activity in kindergarten classrooms all over the world. Children love to pretend to be other characters by wearing hats and costumes that symbolize those characters and help them become fully immersed in the role.
Role-playing may also improve executive functioning (EF), which is defined as “cognitive processes that are required for the conscious, top-down control of action, thought, and emotions, and that are associated with neural systems involving the prefrontal cortex” (Müller &Liben, 2015, p. 271).
Veraksa et al. (2019) tested the hypothesis that role-playing could improve EF. They assigned 80 children, 5-6 years old, to play either a hero, a sage, a villain, or no character at all (control condition).
For boys, the hero was Batman, the sage was a wise sorcerer, and the villain was a well-known character in Russian culture. For girls, the heroine was a princess, the sage a wise sorceress, and the villain a well-known female villain. The kids wore costumes and accessories to help them become immersed in the character.
EF was measured the same way as in previous research and is considered a valid assessment.
The results showed that
“…children in the Sage and Control conditions showed significantly improved performance on [EF] tasks. Children who were asked to play protagonists and villains did not show any significant improvements in [EF]” (p. 12).
Although role-playing Batman did not improve EF, the authors suggest that the experience may have been too intense emotionally, which then disrupted EF.
Vygotsky (2004) postulated that imaginary play, which incorporates symbolic play, informs the child about what is appropriate in real-life situations.
The lessons learned during play are transferred to reality. “This ability to transfer skills from the imaginary to the real world is supported by research….contributes to the development of an understanding of the social relations, thinking and emotional states of other people …” (Veraksa et al., 2019, p. 3).
Therefore, teachers often use role-playing to teach children about appropriate behavior in regards tohealthy habits or how to handle various social issues.
It can also be used to teach lessons about safety. Hence the play Crash, which depicts a scenario of two families going to the supermarket.
As one family enters their car, the parents are giving clear instructions for their children to “buckle-up,” while the kids remind their parents about“no texting or browsing the internet.”
As the other family enters their car, the scene is more chaotic. The kids don’t buckle-up and the parents are texting and making phone calls.
The two cars eventually cross paths and crash into each other. One family escapes with only slight bruises. The other family however, has serious injuries and need emergency care; enter the ambulance and hospital staff.
The goal is for the students to apply the lessons learned in the play to real life, and ultimately help their families practice safety habits.
See Also: Prosocial Behavior Examples
5. It’s a Therapeutic Tool
Human beings have an innate tendency to use narrative to explain their experiences. These narratives help us organize information and create a cohesive understanding of life events.
Vieira and Sperb(2011) applied this narrative tendency to therapy for young children who were dealing with traumatic events. The study involved a case study design of three patients between six and eight years old.
The children were given an opportunity to engage in free-play in a sandbox with an assortment of toys and objects. Each child played for one hour while the therapists took notes and photos.
The actions displayed during symbolic play were compared to what was known about each child’s family situation.
As the authors explained: “In the narrative productions, we saw children trying to cope with unfavorable conditions of life and looking for solutions that allow them to develop and [grow].”
By using symbolic play, the therapists were able to gain additional insights into the events that transpired in the children’s lives and develop a better understanding of their coping mechanisms.
Symbolic play is a powerful component of a child’s development. When a child uses its imagination, they are exercising their creativity, strengthening linguistic skills, and enhancing their cognitive development.
They are also improving their executive functioning, learning to cope with some of life’s traumatic challenges, and experimenting with different types of people that they see in their daily lives.
Teachers of young children often use a form of symbolic play, the role-play, to teach kids lessons in life. The goal is for students to take those lessons and apply them outside of class in their own daily lives.
Göncü, A., & Gaskins, S. (2012). Comparing and extending Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s understandings of play: Symbolic play as individual, sociocultural, and educational interpretation. In P. E. Natahn& A. D. Pellegrini (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Play (pp. 48-57). Oxford University Press. https://oi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195393002.013.0005
Morris, S. R. (1998). No learning by coercion: Paidia and Paideia in Platonic philosophy. In D. P. Fromberg and D. Bergen (Eds.), Play from Birth to Twelve and Beyond: Contexts, Perspectives, and Meanings (pp. 109–118). New
Müller, U., &Liben, L. S. (2015). The development of executive function. In R. M. Lerner, L. S. Liben, U. Mueller, R. M. Lerner, L. S. Liben& U. Mueller (Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, Cognitive Processes (pp. 571-613). Somerset, England: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
Orr, E., Geva, R. (2015). Symbolic play and language development. Infant behavior and Development, 38C, 147-161. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infbeh.2015.01.002
Piaget, J. (1945) Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. London: Heinemann.
Veraksa, A., Gavrilova, M.,Bukhalenkova, D., Almazova, O., Veraksa, N., & Colliver, Y. (2019). Does Batman ™ affect EF because he is benevolent or skillful? The effect of different pretend roles on preschoolers’ executive functions. Early Child Development and Care, 191(2). 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2019.1658091
Vieira, A., &Sperb, T. (2011). Cultural Elements in Symbolic Play and in the Narrative Organization of the Child’s Life Experience. Conference: 42nd Annual Meeting of the Society for Psychotherapy Research, Bern – Switzerland.
Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259502321_Cultural_Elements_in_Symbolic_Play_and_in_the_Narrative_Organization_of_the_Child’s_Life_Experience
Vygotsky, L. S.(1967).Play and Its Role in the Mental Development of the Child.Soviet Psychology,5(3),6-18. https://doi.org/0.2753/RPO1061-040505036 Vygotsky, L. S. (2004). Imagination and creativity in childhood. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 42(1), 7-97.