Out of all the amazing moments we get to experience being parents, watching our children explore and play are definitely in the top five treasured memories.
It is endlessly entertaining to watch our children discover how to use something new and spark their imagination. Maybe it’s because it brings us back to when we were little and had so much fun with the most simple of objects.
Thinking back to childhood, it’s easy to feel like the times were simpler. Nowadays, there are so many toys and technical devices to teach and entertain kids. But one thing will never change when it comes to recess and free time — symbolic play. This type of activity is timeless and will always hold a special place in our hearts.
What Is Symbolic Play?
Children engage in different types of play to learn and develop. One form of play that young children enjoy is symbolic play. Symbolic play is when children use other objects or toys to pretend it’s something else.
We remember this as “pretend play.” This form of play is where a child’s imagination blossoms, and they’re able to have a good time while exploring the world around them.
Now we are going to review why symbolic play is so great for kids, how they typically engage in it, and more.
Benefits of Symbolic Play
Let’s talk about the benefits your child experiences from symbolic play. We know that this type of play is helpful for their development, but how so exactly? Understanding a child’s development and how symbolic play can help their brains is a great way for you to encourage them in their pretend play.
Promotes Cognitive Development
From the baby stage, to the toddler stage and so on, children express different forms of symbolic play. As they explore their surrounding environments, their brains recognize objects and collect information about them.
As they get older and their imagination grows more powerful, children start to use one “ordinary” object to stand in the place for something more “extraordinary.” For instance, a bathtub might become a fearsome pirate ship to fit the narrative our little ones are playing out in their minds.
When this happens, it stimulates cognitive brain growth as certain parts of their brains are being used and strengthened. Not only does this type of play help grow a child intellectually, but also gives them opportunities to problem solve, which helps with social interactions, school readiness, and emotional regulation.
Engaging in symbolic play helps a child strengthen their imagination and creativity, which are great for their development, and you get to watch them having a blast while doing it.
Encourages Cooperative Play
One reason why symbolic play is so important is that it encourages cooperative play. Cooperative play is beneficial for children of all ages. It promotes teamwork which is great for activities that require problem-solving.
Kids that play and work together are building and strengthening relationships as well as practicing language, communication skills, and patience. These are vital for healthy development.
Symbolic play invites children into cooperative play since kids love to pretend play together. Two minds are always better than one when it comes to deciding which household items will make for the best foundation to build a “house.”
Growing up, playing with friends, siblings, or neighbors was always the most memorable. Children not only have a blast when playing together but learn so much about the world around them and how to work with others while they do it.
Allows Children To See Different Perspectives
As an adult, we know that being able to see the world and situations through someone else’s perspective is a very important part of maturity. One way that children get that practice of having a different perspective than their own is through symbolic play.
An example of this can be seen when a child pretends they are a mermaid, saving sailors lost at sea. This simple pretend play game gives your child the practice to eventually be able to step out of their own perspective and see the world through someone else's.
Symbolic play can help give your child the tools and practice of being able to view the world around them through someone else's perspective, and that is highly beneficial for emotional and character development.
As mentioned before, children of all ages can engage in symbolic play. When children play with objects around them, they build fine and gross motor skills. The more they do this, the more they’re able to understand how objects and toys work and in what ways they can use them when engaging in symbolic play.
Examples of Symbolic Play
To better understand how symbolic play is done, here are some examples that you may already notice your children doing. Depending on your child’s age, symbolic play may look different.
Let’s chat about what you’ll probably see given their age group:
Babies (8 to 18 Months)
Babies start to lean into symbolic play around 18 months old, but the earliest foundation begins at roughly eight months of age.
For children to eventually engage in symbolic play, they first need to see and understand how objects and toys work. When it comes to babies, letting them explore the environment around them and giving them plenty of toys or safe objects in your home to let them see, touch, taste, and pick up is a great first step.
Babies that are moving around and playing with objects by exploring them, banging them, throwing them, etc., are in the beginning stages of symbolic play.
Toddlers (18 Months to 3 Years Old)
At this age, toddlers can now recognize objects and remember what they do and are used for. In this stage, children have mastered how to use toys and are now moving on to the symbolic stage, where objects now become what they want them to do. Wooden blocks become cell phones, and hoola hoops become safe zones from erupting volcanoes.
This is really the time when children are fully stepping into symbolic play and letting their imaginations grow rapidly.
Preschoolers (3 to 5 Years Old)
Preschool age is generally when kids are fully engaged in symbolic play and love to do so with other children. Big cardboard boxes become sailboats or little cottages in the middle of the forest. Face paint transforms a human into a wild tiger, and bedsheets make for the perfect superhero cape.
As a child’s imagination grows and increases, so will their use for symbolic play. At this age, kids love to play dress-up. Saving Halloween costumes is great for dressing up. Or, take a trip to your local thrift store and let your kids pick out some exciting dresses, hats, shoes, and bags that they would like to use when dressing up. To play the part, kids love to also look the part.
Elementary (5 to 10 Years Old)
Children this age and older have mastered symbolic play and are more engaged in it for entertainment purposes. Younger ages are learning expediently through symbolic play, whereas elementary-age kids and older are just having fun and making memories.
Get Outside & Encourage Playtime
With our favorite summertime activities behind us, we welcome the cooler temperatures of fall with open arms. Now that the heat is (mostly) gone, the mild weather beckons our children outdoors.
Nature is a great place for kids to explore symbolic play and get fresh air at the same time. One way to encourage symbolic play outside is to use whatever is already outside to fit the game they want to play. If they want to pretend to be an animal living in the wild, suggest they choose a tree or playhouse to stand in as a home.
Kids love to explore nature. Bring them to a park with nature trails and record them showing you all the cool plants and insects. They can be a wildlife expert for a day while you capture priceless moments. Fall is perfect for this — the leaves changing color and falling to the ground brighten our days and fire up our imaginations.
Playtime Is a Foundation for Building Futures
Obviously, kids love to play because it is fun and exciting. It’s also fun as the parent to watch your children enjoying themselves and having the time of their lives. Symbolic play is not only great for entertainment purposes and for creating lifelong memories for the whole family, but it’s also beneficial for many reasons.
As children grow, symbolic play is great for children’s development, social skills, building communication and language skills, problem-solving, teamwork, and so much more. It’s a form of play that children of any age can participate in, and there are endless examples and ways for them to engage in it. Many trends or styles may grow old and outdated, but symbolic play never will.
- Symbolic Play: Examples, Definition, Importance, and More | Healthline
- Go Play! The Importance of Symbolic Play in Early Childhood | Different Roads
- What Are Fine Motor Skills? | Understood
- What Is Cooperative Play? Definition, Examples, and Benefits | Healthline
- Foundation: Symbolic Play | Child Development (CA Dept of Education)