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What is Symbolic Play?

May 2nd, 2018 | 2 min. read

By Ashleigh Craven

What comes to mind when we say “child’s play”? Is it preschoolers playing dress up and taking on roles? Toddlers playing with boxes and wrapping paper tubes? Children play all the time, and their creativity is often what directs them. A child can turn an empty box into a race car with just a bit of imagination. These kinds of imaginative games are called “symbolic play.”

Symbolic play is when a child uses objects to stand in for other objects. Speaking into a banana as if it was a phone or turning an empty cereal bowl into the steering wheel of a spaceship are examples of symbolic play. Like all kinds of play, symbolic play is important to development, both academically and socially. Some areas that symbolic play improves are:

  1. Cognitive Skills. Symbolic play illustrates how one thing can stand in for another. This concept is vital for everything from English to math; if a tissue box can represent a shoe, a mark on paper can represent a sound. Symbolic play also gives children the opportunity to rethink and solve their own problems and scenarios. It presents a safe space for children to experiment and learn by doing.
  2. Social-Emotional Skills. Symbolic play often overlaps with peer play. Two children can share the experience of imagining a world or story through objects. This brings up many opportunities for little learners to pick up social skills like listening, taking turns, negotiating, or adapting behavior. As the story grows and develops, children learn to adjust and take ideas from others. Symbolic play also provides opportunities for children to act out fantasies, such as emulating a parent or getting to be in charge. These experiences can relieve stress and teach better emotional control.
  3. Motor Skills. Using props in play encourages children to control their movements. They may find themselves trying to make large movements as they act out their story or using smaller movements to reshape or modify the props. Children often find themselves running and climbing over the play space, once more building their motor skills while also encouraging them to be physically active.
  4. Language and Literacy Skills. You can’t have literacy without symbols. Symbolic play teaches children that objects can represent something else, just like the letters of the alphabet represent sound or how words represent objects and emotions. Symbolic play also encourages children to use familiar words in a different context; they can’t pretend to go grocery shopping without using words for foods or money, and acting out situations with these words help solidify their meaning.

Symbolic play is an important developmental function, and one that can be easily brought into the classroom. Most preschools already have designated play time, but caregivers can also direct symbolic play in order to illustrate important concepts. The book Prop Box Play delves further into the importance of play-based learning and provides lesson plans and activities for teachers who want to bring play into their curriculum. Check it out and see what symbolic play can do!

Author(s)Blanche Desjean-Perrotta, Ann Barbour

Ashleigh Craven

Ashleigh Craven has a decade and a half of diverse category experience from agency communications to athletic apparel to automotive to education, developing and executing communication strategies in both traditional and social media. She has supported national product launches and corporate events for the likes of Soffe, Buick, Chevrolet, Wake Forest University , Kaplan, and others. She has an BA from the University of Michigan in English and Communication Studies and an MA from Wake Forest University, where she focused her studies on argumentation and presidential rhetoric and speechwriting. She served as director of marketing for Gryphon House from 2017- 2020.