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How to Foster Symbolic Play

We have talked about symbolic play before – what it is and why it is important. It is also known as “pretend play”, “dramatic play”, “imaginative play”, “make-believe play”, and some types of it can be called “small world play”. 

We have promised to write more on the subject, so here we go:

The first signs and differences among children

The first signs of symbolic play may appear between the ages of 18 months and 2 years. Think of gestures like pretending to drink from an empty cup or feeding a doll. At 2-3 children are eager for make-believe play. However, they do not exhibit these signs all at the same time and all in the same manner. Also, make-believe play grows richer and more sophisticated with age.

What could adults do to encourage and help sustain pretend play? 

Children who start earlier are usually encouraged by adults who take active part in symbolic play: while children are taking their first steps in dramatic play, adults share their experience – by talking, laughing in delight, carrying out their own make-believe gestures and short scenarios.

Caregivers could initiate pretend play and then step back and let children play as they see fit, resisting the urge to teach them to play “properly”. They better be supportive rather than intrusive. With time it will be more and more natural and easy for children to spontaneously initiate imaginative play.

Research shows that reading simple picture books and telling stories goes a long way, and children who have been read to and told stories, practice imaginative play much more. They have richer vocabulary and more scenarios to play out and later modify. Their story-telling abilities and narrative thinking have been given a foundation.

Symbolic play can actually be discouraged and stunted by adults and older children

Some people are embarrassed when they see their children engaged in symbolic play, especially when a kid plays symbolically on their own. We ourselves have noticed that pretend play can look ridiculous, and yes, even crazy. So when parents are embarrassed by a child’s play, they are doing their best to prevent it – sadly, sometimes by scornful and humiliating remarks. 

Other people know better, but they might fail to prevent their elder children from teasing and ruining their younger siblings’ pretend play. 

So the first and foremost thing that fosters pretend play is simply tolerating it

It is not always easy, especially for people whose children might have invented imaginary friends and playmates. This most often happens when there is an only child in the family or to the first born. Such people should rest assured that there is nothing wrong with imaginary friends, and children who happen to have them, usually grow up better behaved and more creative. 

What do we need to provide?

Play space. It does not have to be huge – many people do not have dedicated playrooms, but most people could definitely spare some modest space. When I was a kid and everyone was in the living room, my dedicated space was situated on a blanket. Nowadays, my son too often takes no more than two square meters of space for his pretend play. (And I pretend not to be hearing his monologues and dialogues).

Objects – toys and others.

The toys and objects that foster symbolic play

For younger children:

Toys representing objects from their immediate environment and daily lives. They need to be realistic. We cannot expect very young children to use an object in an unusual way, to imagine it is another thing. They need realistic props to get started at all. These objects encourage children to imitate the actions of the people around them. We cannot expect young children to be what we believe is creative. At this stage we should celebrate their imitation activities.

For older children:

Their language skills are more sophisticated, so they can speak about their play. Their imagination is better developed, so they can imagine an object as something different from what it is. Here is why older children are not so dependent on realistic play props. However, many of them simply prefer realistic toys better – it’s a matter of personal play style.

Simpler objects, without too many specific details are usually used in many different ways in many play scenarios. In fact, possibilities are endless, so these toys sustain longer periods of play, and then they can be used for years. Construction blocks and any other type of construction elements – they can be used to create more elaborated props or they can be used as they are to represent different things in different scenarios. I have seen my son use such plastic tubes to represent even people and other living creatures:

Recently I have observed him use nuts, bolts and magnets to represent living things:

Older children love using objects in symbolic ways. Here is why cardboard boxes happen to be the most popular toys for children who can get hold of them, and they can be used in an endless number of ways.

Toys driven by children, not by batteries

Toys that are too sophisticated are too often close-ended. They can perfectly do something on their own, but it is usually just one thing. They are coveted, but then they are enjoyed for quite a short period of time, and then end up sadly forgotten. 

Clusters of toys

Tea sets, animal sets, first aid kits, small people and creature figurines, doll furniture, etc. These sustain rich and long play. I hope to find the time to write a special piece on small world play!

Dress up clothes

These do not have to be expensive. They can be found in thrift stores, handed down from adults, made by children – for example out of play silks, etc.

Toy theatres

These used to be very popular in upper class families in the past. Nowadays they do not seem to be popular at all, but they have become affordable. Here is our favourite toy theatre shop

Besides, you can make your own one for free – from cardboard boxes, and you can easily make your own simple paper puppets. Your children might wish to create their own puppets too.

This is not only exciting but also useful as theatre play enhances imagination, fosters empathy, improves storytelling skills and develops narrative thought (narrative thought is a mode of thinking that deserves a dedicated text). So anything that provokes telling stories, trying out different roles, voices and situations makes a person more emotionally intelligent and more eloquent.

Last but not least

There is more to discover and share about symbolic play, so you can expect us to write other text as soon as time permits. Follow us on social media to stay updated!