Symbolic Play: Definition, Importance And Steps To Encourage It


Symbolic play is a creative activity where babies and toddlers use an item/object to represent or symbolize something else (1). The symbolic representation of things helps a child depict and convey thoughts and ideas through sound, words, and play (2). A baby racing a block like a car or talking over a toy phone are a few examples of symbolic play.

According to experts, the appearance of symbolic play skills is a crucial cognitive development milestone that lays the foundation for developing other vital skills, such as language and social skills (3) (4). Thus, knowing about symbolic play and taking steps to foster it are essential for a child’s overall development.

This post tells you about the development of symbolic play, its importance for a child’s overall development, and tips to foster your child’s interest in symbolic play.

When Do Symbolic Play Skills Appear?

Symbolic play skills appear distinctly between two and three years of age (5). However, this development doesn’t happen suddenly. Instead, it’s a gradual process that passes through the following stages (6).

1. Baby play stage (3 to 18 months)

Most babies begin imitating sounds, expressions, and movements as early as three months of age (7). This ability is an important developmental milestone that prepares them to observe, understand, and follow their surroundings (4). However, at this age, they can’t use objects for imitation.

Over the next few months, their ability refines, and by eight months of age, they try imitating sounds and noises by banging and shaking toys. Besides, they are getting familiar with people, objects/things, ideas, and thoughts. Then, as the baby steps into toddlerhood, they enter the pre-symbolic play stage.

2. Pre-symbolic stage (18 to 22 months)

Between 18 and 22 months, toddlers enter the pre-symbolic play stage, where they participate in functional play and mimic routine, everyday activities, or familiar people. For instance, the toddler may brush their doll’s hair as you do theirs or pretend to drink from a cup and make slurping noises. Thus, the toddler will use a real object or prop to represent another object, thing, or activity.

By the time they approach their second birthday, they gradually transition to the symbolic play stage. It means now the toddler will use one object to represent another object more frequently. For instance, a toddler will use a paper towel roll as a phone and pretend to call someone, or race a block on the floor like a car.

3. Symbolic play stage (24 months to 3½ years)

Toddlers between 24 months to 3½ years engage in make-believe play with a planned and sequenced theme. As per the theme, they assign roles to themselves and others. Additionally, now they can imagine an object and use it in the play when the actual object is absent. For instance, a toddler may treat colorful magnets as pizza slices and pretend to sell them to their play companion (associative play). Most toddlers also begin using emotions in the play during this period.

4. Advanced symbolic play stage (4 to 6 years)

Children between four and six years are mature enough to participate in symbolic play with abstract themes, such as pirates and superheroes. These themes are usually based on events or incidents that they have heard but never experienced. Hence, they pick a theme and then weave a story around it using their imagination and creativity.

Then, based on the story, they assign roles/characters to themselves and others.  If needed, they would perform multiple roles themselves. To convey instructions, thoughts, and ideas to play companions, they now use verbal and non-verbal communication cues. For instance, a child pretending to be a cashier in the shop might say to their friend to be the customer and ask them to inquire about different items’ prices.

Why Is Symbolic Play Important?

Symbolic play teaches a child to observe, understand, and mimic their surroundings using structured thinking, creativity, and imagination (8). This ability is essential to overcome impulsiveness and have a thought-driven behavior, which, in turn, helps children develop in other aspects of their lives, such as those mentioned below.

  1. Cognitive development: When toddlers engage in symbolic play, they learn about real-life situations and creative ways to deal with them. This learning boosts their analytical thinking, which helps them find solutions to problems and overcome hurdles. Symbolic play provides a child with an opportunity to experiment and learn through action.
  2. Language development: Symbolic play teaches a child about symbolic function. It means a child learns that one object can be used as a symbol to represent something else. For instance, letters are used to symbolize sounds and words to symbolize emotions. This learning is crucial for a child to build vocabulary, identify objects and use them as symbols, learn about gestures and use them for communication, and follow/give verbal instructions in a specific order (9).
  3. Socio-emotional development: Most children indulge in make-believe activities with play companions (peer play). It allows them to share things/ideas, imagine and create a story, negotiate, take turns, and assign roles. Then, as the story demands, they switch roles or take leads and behave as adults do. All these attributes help a child develop better emotional control and act responsibly. Also, when a child plans a story and acts it out, it can ease their stress and boosts self-esteem and confidence.
  4. Motor development: A baby as young as eight-month-old picks objects and tries to imitate what the other person is doing. Such activities refine their fine and gross motor skills. Then, as the baby grows, they begin picking, holding, and stacking items, such as blocks, one over the other to create objects, further polishing their motor skills.

Since symbolic play can benefit the overall development, it’s imperative you encourage your child to indulge in symbolic play from a young age. The following section shares some helpful tips you can follow.

Steps To Encourage Symbolic Play

Here are some age-appropriate activity ideas that can foster your child’s interest in symbolic play.

1. Baby play stage (3 to 18 months)

Give your baby various toys, such as rattles, toy ducks, squeeze balls, and stacking cups. Then, sit with them and move the toys in different directions or tip, bang, and roll them on different surfaces to hear what sounds they make. Then, as the baby grows, provide them with toy cars, trucks, and bikes that you both can move back and forth and make fun noises like “vroom…vroom” or “beep…beep.”

2. Pre-symbolic stage (18 to 22 months)

Toddlers in this age group are already imitating familiar people and activities. Hence, it’s the right time to introduce your toddler to simple make-believe toys. You can buy make-believe toys from the market or use household items to pretend to play. Whatever way you choose, remember to participate in the activity to make it interactive and fun.

For instance, you can hold a birthday party for your toddler’s favorite toy or a picnic with their toys. Alternatively, you can give them some household items, such as a bowl and spoon, to pretend they are mixing the cake batter.

3. Symbolic play stage (24 months to 3½ years)

At this age, a toddler is skilled enough to follow a sequence and theme while playing. Besides, they can effectively imagine and symbolize an object for the other. However, they still imitate things that they have seen or experienced. So, provide them with household items, such as reusable plastic or tin containers, mugs, and lids, and watch them recreate a scene from a cartoon series or movie they had watched. For instance, they may use the items to create a miniature departmental store or display items like in a backyard sale that they had seen last weekend.

4. Advanced symbolic play stage (4 to 6 years)

At this stage, your child is filled with imagination and creativity. They can create structured stories and assign roles to themselves and others. It’s why they can use almost any items in the house to make an object they would need for their play. So, load your child’s room with old clothes, shoes, hats, baskets, and other household stuff that they can use to create a story.

For instance, a child might create a play where they pretend to be the superhero and ask the other child to be the thief. Then, they use a tablecloth to dress like the superhero and use an old stick as their sword to fight the thief. Their creativity now is boundless, and they can use the same items to create different games or stories.

What If A Child Doesn’t Indulge In Symbolic Play?

Symbolic play is a crucial developmental stage, but not every child passes it at the same age. Some children may pass the stage early, and some may pass it a little later. Yet, several parents worry about the delayed appearance of symbolic play skills. It is primarily because a delay or deficit in symbolic play is often associated with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) (10).

Hence, consult a pediatrician if you are worried that your preschooler doesn’t indulge in symbolic play, always plays alone, or does specific activities repeatedly. They will evaluate the child and let you know if there’s a concern.

Symbolic play is a type of play where a child uses one object/thing to represent or symbolize a different object. Most toddlers attain this play skill between 18 to 24 months. However, some may develop the skill a little late. Whenever your child displays symbolic play skills, play with them to support their overall development.


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Swati Patwal

Swati Patwal is a clinical nutritionist and toddler mom with over eight years of experience in diverse fields of nutrition. She started her career as a CSR project coordinator for a healthy eating and active lifestyle project catering to school children. Then she worked as a nutrition faculty and clinical nutrition coach in different organizations. Her interest in scientific writing... more