What Is Symbolic Play?

A child’s ability to use one object to represent another object, an action to symbolize another action, or an idea to stand for another idea is known as symbolic play.

The forming of symbolic thoughts can be observed in young children around 8 months of age. As they become familiar with their surroundings, babies’ minds start forming a database of people, objects and actions they observe and experience through their five senses. For example, shaking a rattle or banging a baby toy may turn into the action of touching their heads with the toy to mimic brushing their hair.

As children get older, they begin to imitate what they discover through exploration. At 18 months, a child may pretend to feed a doll with a spoon or use blocks as cars and boats. They might imitate the sound of a motor or hold a piece of fruit to their ears and say, “Hi!”

Dramatic play is considered one of the purest forms of symbolic thought and is necessary for strong intellectual development. At age three, a child may assign roles to themselves and to others. They may say things like, “You be the mommy, and I be the baby,” or “I be a kitty, and you be a puppy.” Creative dramatics incorporates critical thinking and problem solving.