Symbolic play involves the use of symbols, metaphors and analogies during play.
Symbolism helps children develop non-literal thinking, self-expression and imagination. Parents and teachers can encourage symbolic play by creating resource-rich environments with symbolic toys. They should also model symbolic play.
Scholars define symbolic play in the following ways:
- “Play where one thing can stand for another.” (Howard, 2018, p. 18)
- “Using one object to represent another object or event (e.g., use a bucket for a hat).” (Thiemann-Bourque, Brady & Flemming, 2012, p. 863)
When Does Symbolic Play Emerge?
Pre- symbolic play occurs within the first few months of life. Elements of truly symbolic play tend to emerge at about 2 years and gets more complex by about 2 1/2 to 3 years of age.
Up to 18 months
Up to about 18 months, children tend to show signs of pre-symbolic or ‘functional’ play.
During these early stages of a child’s development, they are mostly learning to orient themselves to their surrounds.
Pre-symbolic play in children under 18 months is defined by Español et al. (2015, p. 244) in the following quote:
Symbolic play begins at the pre-symbolic or presentational level – known as functional play – when children begin to use objects out of their context (e.g. use an empty spoon for “eating”)
However, some early hints of symbolic play might be visible at this age range. Examples might be:
- A child making ‘banging’ noises when knocking objects together (the use of the voice as a symbol).
- Pushing around a toy car and saying ‘broom’ (the use of a model object as a symbol of its larger version).
- Pretending to drink from a cup.
Related Article: 10 Symbolic Play Examples
18 – 24 months
Children experience a “language explosion” (Willan, 2018, p. 121) at about 18 months. This is where symbolic play really takes off.
Language is a key component of symbolism. That is because language itself is a symbol. Our words are symbols for our thoughts and feelings.
Things you might observe between 18 and 24 months include:
- Pretending objects around the home are telephones
- Imitating parents’ behaviors, e.g picking up a TV remote and pointing it at things
- Involving stuffed animals as participants in play
- Assigning toys and dolls roles during play
- Laughing at siblings who are using symbolic play
It is worth noting that a child at this age will still be playing alone (solitary play) or observing others’ play, but rarely engaging in cooperative play with siblings or peers.
Related Article: 10 Dramatic Play Examples
24 – 30 Months
Between 2 and 2 1/2 years of age, you should see significant development in symbolic play. You will observe:
- Pretending toys and stuffed animals have feelings
- Making dolls ‘walk’ in a way that imitates human walking
- Using blocks of wood, sticks, boxes or other domestic resources and pretending they are something else
- Engaging in pretend play situations such as pretending to be a doctor or teacher
30 – 36 Months
At 2 1/2 years (30 months), children will move into more sophisticated forms of symbolic play, such as:
- Creating play activities with a beginning, middle and end
- Planning play scenarios which involve symbolism skills, such as saying “I’ll be the princess this time” and acting out the assigned role
- Intentionally building model towers, trucks, towns, etc.
Related Article: 10 Pretend Play Examples
Links to Theories of Child Development
Many theorists have referred to symbolic play as a milestone in child development, including Piaget, Parten and Sheridan. All of them suggest it emerges in earnest around the 2 years of age mark, give or take a few months.
Piaget argues that symbolism develops during the preoperational stage of cognitive development (2 to 7 years of age). This is consistent with the general belief that symbolic play emerges at about the 2 year mark of a child’s life.
Parten (1929, 1932) classifies play behaviors into 6 stages of play. She argues that symbolism during play emerges during the ‘solitary play stage’. This stage spans the ages of 3 months to 2 1/2 years. Again, that two years of age mark for the emergence of symbolism sits within Parten’s model.
Mary D. Sheridan (Sheridan, Howard & Alderson, 2011) also presents 6 stages of play. Within her model, symbolism emerges during the Make-Believe Play stage (20 – 26 months). Again, consistent with Piaget and Parten, it appears all three theorists seem to think symbolism in play should emerge somewhere around the 2 years of age mark.
Difference Between Symbolic and Pretend Play
‘Symbolic’ and ‘pretend play’ are often used to explain the same thing. However, pretend play refers to a much bigger stage of play, in which symbolism is one element.
Pretend play is a type of play in which symbolism is a key feature.
Pretend play has three key features:
- Extrapolation (Imagination): A child may think up fantasies and imaginative activities. They will start by imitating television or parents. They will soon branch out to creating more far-fetched scenarios.
- Trying on Identities: A child may try out different identities, such as ‘doctor’, ‘pirate’, ‘princess’, and ‘vet’.
- Use of Symbols and Metaphors: A child may use symbols during play activities – such as a stick for a sword or a cardboard box for a boat.
Here, you can see that symbolism in play is one feature of the broader category of play we call ‘pretend play’.
For more, see my full article on Pretend Play
Examples of Symbolic Play
Some examples include:
- Using language and tone of voice as a symbol, e.g. saying “broom” when pushing a car.
- Using a wooden block to represent a car.
- Using a stick to represent a sword.
- Assigning character roles to stuffed toys during play
- Using some objects to represent other objects.
- Using toys as if they were real (a toy stethoscope, for example)
- Creating minatures and pretending they are real, e.g. making a toy airplane.
Benefits for Young Children and Child Development
The greatest benefit of symbolic play for children is cognitive development into abstract thinking. When young children can think abstractly, they are preparing their minds for other types of abstraction such as:
- Language Use: A child practices the skills of being able to talk about things through analogies and metaphors.
- Mathematical Thinking: A child practices replacing numbers with symbols, which will be necessary down the track when using algebra. The foundations begin during toddler-hood.
Symbolic play will also encourage creativity skills. When children are doing creative activities, they think outside the box and can come up with creative ways to solve old problems. Creativity is strongly encouraged for children to develop 21st Century skills required for success in our modern world.
It can be confusing to know the difference between pretend play, symbolic play, imaginative play, make-believe play, and all the other 17 types of play out there! As a student, make sure you define your terms clearly so you have explained what you understand the concept to be. I would recommend relying on the two quotes at the beginning of this article to differentiate the term.
The next play-based learning skills that a child tends to learn after symbolic and pretend play are parallel and cooperative play. Check out my full articles on parallel play and cooperative play for more details.
Español, S., Bordoni, M., Martínez, M., Camarasa, R., & Carretero, S. (2015). Forms of vitality play and play symbolism during the third year of life. Infant Behavior and Development, 40, 242-251.Parten, M. (1929). An analysis of social participation, leadership, and other factors in preschool play groups. Retrieved from: https://www.worldcat.org/oclc/29143846.
Parten, M. (1932). Social participation among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27(3): 243–269. doi: 10.1037/h0074524.
Sheridan, M., Howard, J., & Alderson, D. (2011). Play in early childhood. From Birth to six years. London: Routledge.
Thiemann-Bourque, K. S., Brady, N. C., & Fleming, K. K. (2012). Symbolism in the play of preschoolers with severe communication impairments with autism and other developmental delays: More similarities than differences. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 42(5), 863-873.
About The Author: Hi, I’m Chris Drew (Ph.D) and I run things around here. I’m an Education expert and university professor.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.