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The Significance of Symbolic Play in Child Development

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Symbolic play is a tool used by children to try and communicate with the world in a different way. As a society or even practitioners we follow this to try and have a greater understanding of how this helps a child’s cognitive, social and emotional development, and in this essay I am going to be discussing the importance of it with regards to children’s development.

Symbolic play or pretend play is defined by Weisberg (2015, pp 249) by saying “Pretend play is a form of playful behaviour that involves non-literal action” meaning she thinks that pretend play is playing but, not using any words to communicate or only very basic language, as she believes they are only using symbolic play to communicate.

A very different definition to Weisberg is from Smith and Jones (2011) as they say “symbolic play is an umbrella term used to refer to a range of pretend play behaviours, including dress up, role play as well as object substitutions. However, object substitutions are the form of symbolic play that has been most systematically related to future language development”. For example, pretending a block is a car is a substitution, which can further their language by explaining to you what they are trying to represent with the block (Smith and Jones, 2011, pp 1142). This definition conflicts with the one from Weisberg, as Smith and Jones believe that language can be formed from symbolic play, whereas Weisberg says that she thinks pretend play uses no language and is just a playful type of behaviour with basic language skills, and she doesn’t mention any improvement in excelling the children’s speech or their way of language or communication. Smith and Jones believe that language can be formed from symbolic play, whereas Weisberg says that she thinks pretend play uses no language and is just a playful type of behaviour with basic language skills, and she doesn’t mention any improvement in excelling the children’s speech or their way of language or communication.

When looking into symbolic play a lot of huge child organisations recognise its importance, like the The National Association for the Education of Young Children in the United States, as they quote that “high levels of dramatic play produces documented cognitive, emotional and social benefits” (Lillard et al, 2013, pp 1). They believe this as arguably pretend play gives overwhelming imaginative benefits that they cannot gain in any other type of play or learning condition this is because symbolic play has to be a choice by a child and cannot be forced, in order to see any benefits.

For us to understand how children use symbolic play it is appropriate for us to do observations to understand. Observation is a huge part of that as like the EYFS says, positive relationships are the way for us to understand children and collaborate with them in order to gain a information and understanding of how it helps their developmental skills. A way to do this is through enabling environments and the EYFS are keen to promote staff facilitating and enabling environments as it allows for children to express themselves in different ways, including symbolic play, which includes role play and pretend play which overall children really enjoy and find beneficial in expressing themselves, which I am going to show throughout my research.

One of the key topics is our understanding of emotional development in children and how this is portrayed through symbolic play. Symbolic play reveals literal symbols in which children are trying to communicate and show their emotions as in some cases they may use play as a tool in order to understand their own relationships, and or feelings. To assist our understanding of children’s symbolic play in association to emotional development, we first have to understand the message in which they are using this method to try and say to us. If we take an example from Wieder (2017) with Joey pretending to be Peter Pan where he manages to create a dungeon and throws people over deck, and when he wins the fight he gets very excited and celebrates and becomes more upset when the dragon defeats him, this is opening a window for Joey and us as adults to understand the type of emotion he is feeling in his victory’s as this scene is somewhat important to him which makes it important for us to understand and perceive properly. This research shows that children use a wide range of emotion and empathy during symbolic play, which ultimately show emotional development that us as observers need to watch out for to understand properly; as it may indicate if that child is upset or having a problem which us as practitioners could look for during play.

Self regulation is seen as an important factor when being ready for school, as it helps social and emotional behaviours, and early childhood pretend play is seen to support this. A study from Slot et al (2017) discuss the effects of pretend play on 3 year olds with regards to emotional development. They put the 3 year olds in a symbolic play environment and facilitated it in a naturalistic play setting with lots of toys and things they could use eg costumes for role play so they would feel comfortable under observation; the results indicated that symbolic play had assisted highly in emotional state of the children’s self regulation, as they could regulate their emotions well and become versatile to the ongoing tasks. This shows importance of symbolic play and the importance of understanding it to make children feel more comfortable in a situation and facilitate them, which is why it makes it so important as practitioners to understand and be able to comply and assist with, by providing the essential materials.

If we look at symbolic/pretend play from a social standpoint, does symbolic play really help children develop socially? Research from Lillard and Ma (2017) try to help out our understanding of how it can help. They create research by showing children aged around 24-30 months old, and they were shown actors on a screen pretending to eat something out of a bowl or in the other instance they actually had food, and they had to differentiate from real or imaginary, which they were unable to do, but as they got older they could. This research shows how symbolic play from a young age acts as a basis for imagination, as they grow older they are able to tell the difference because they have done it themselves, which shows how pretend play are developing their social cues in the world.

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A following study from Wiesberg (2015) agrees with the above that around age of 4 children are able to differentiate between real world and reality, and that’s more or less when they are able to form more social bonds with others as they start to understand more about the real world, rather then being in a pretend bubble anymore.

With pretend play there is overwhelming amounts of research from 50+ years, if we look from an older perspective like Vygotksy and his work with pretend play; he also emphasises the importance of symbolic play and that the symbolic signs which he says are mediators, meaning bringing the social and intellectual functions together to create an understanding of the environment. These are created by children during symbolic play to help them go onto understand the social world, he highlights how pretend play creates social positives and how this goes onto create beneficial social forms of play. This research shows to us that even from a longer time ago symbolic play has always been a huge part of our understanding of children and we should continue on and research its effects. Everyday children with autism and other disabilities face many challenges, especially with social skills and making friendships.

An article from Wolfberg et al (2015) look into how to facilitate these children using symbolic play for better relationships and friendships in school time; they went on to look into The Integrated Play Groups (IPG) model which they put into place with a group of autistic children, which uses symbolic play to increase try and increase social skills. They tested this on 48 children using a repeated measures design which involves measures of the same situation over more than one period, for this instance with and without IPG with and without IPG. They found that using an IPG model highly increased the social interaction between peers and the autistic children were included a lot more in the task. It is believed that children with autism find symbolic play really helpful as it gives them more of a chance to express themselves and create a conversation through something they enjoy, eg role play, and therefore in this situation find it easier to socialise with other children while using it. This is important for our understanding as it shows that peer to peer socialisation is very important for children to excel and develop properly. And this article creates an understanding for us as outsiders to properly understand the strengths of symbolic play on children’s health and interaction as it is believed that symbolic play creates a foundation for language and friendships.

Role play is the highest form of symbolic play as it requires a lot of mental and cognitive skills, like that children can take on a role in a play and then come out of it. When researching there has been overwhelming evidence that symbolic play quite literally helps our understanding of children, as they learn to speak and communicate in different ways. Research from Umek and Muesk (2001) say that fantasy play and role play both from symbolic play overall, encourage and enhance speech; a simple task with adults and children is the manipulation of toys. A child could be pretending to give an inject and say ‘ouch’ this is an example of how role play encourages speech, as they know a real injection will hurt so verbalise it during role play. This can be seen as imitation as they are now creating a scenario during play of what they have seen during real life.

This is similar from a historical perspective as Piaget talks a lot about how imitation is key for symbolic play and encouraging mental development. He believes that imitation provides the essential mental ‘signifiers’ to lead onto symbolic play and then essentially speech, through distinct levels of mental development. Piaget believes that a child makes a mental effort to imitate someone else, therefore leading to speech, which is widely used during symbolic play (Piaget, 1951).

For example, toy association and role play as like the doctor scenario above from Umek and Muesk (2001) when a child has imitated what they have seen and made it into a role play idea, which takes a lot of mental awareness from a child as they have to be fully aware of their surroundings. This process shows a lot of importance to our understanding of symbolic play as, overall it’s a learning process that requires a lot of mental comprehension of the world and their surroundings to be able to then put that into pretend play. This type of research is also important because as practitioners it allows for us to make observations, which are essential to gage what level that child is as and how they can excel in their work, by increasing their cognitive skills so they aren’t on the same level for too long. Symbolic play really helps assist this as we can see where a child’s comprehension and language level may be at, which can relate to their reading level and we are also able to pick up if there may be a problem, which shows how important our understanding of that child and their play habits are in relation to development level.

If we look at symbolic play and cognitive development from a cultural standpoint, are we getting the same results? Can we generalise that symbolic play does help children’s cognitive development overall. A study from Delveechio et al (2016) helps us to determine this. They did a study with 4-5 year old Italian children to determine if pretend play would assist in their cognitive development and learning during school time. After research they concluded that pretend play was able to assist in this as it showed the children were showing higher levels in work and a greater range of play activities than before, giving them more abilities. This research confirms we can somewhat generalise that pretend play does work for a range of cultures and helps cognitive development, which makes the study of symbolic play even more important to us as it can help children increase on their play skills more than they had before.

With regards to all my points, we can see that studying young children’s symbolic play is important for us to learn about and know. As I have made clear in my discussion symbolic play helps the children excel and develop in all cognitive, social and emotional developments. It does this by allowing for the children to create their own imaginary play world through the use of symbolic play and using different techniques such as role play and fantasy play. This type of play as we can see allows for children to make better friendships, learn more things in class and create speech and also be able to express their emotion through the use of objects. This shows how important the study of symbolic play is and should be to us, as it can only open doors for children and help them express themselves; by us studying this type of play we can then go on to make sure we are facilitating this in every way possible to make the children feel comfortable and have the resources to explore pretend play, which allows for adults to observe and be able to see how that child is doing with regards to how they are development. This discussion can conclude that overall we see a huge amount of developmental potential in all aspects for children to excel in with regards to symbolic play, weather that be speech or bonding with others, or even allowing for practitioners to pick up if there is an issue with that child. This makes symbolic play so important for us to understand and study as it brings a new life and difference to normal play that we can observe and learn from that allow for young children to be developmentally successful.

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The Significance of Symbolic Play in Child Development. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2023, from
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