In an earlier article we explored how symbolic, or pretend, play evolves during the first two years of life. Symbolic play is quite a cognitive feat, because it involves young children using objects, actions, or ideas to represent other objects, actions, or ideas during play. And thankfully, this world of make-believe doesn’t dissolve as they grow. A toddler’s ability to use their imagination to transform their environment into something magical will continue to develop, and that’s a good thing. A really good thing, in fact! Pretend play benefits children is wonderful, complex ways, including promoting language skills, building executive functioning, nurturing social skills, and boosting creativity.
It’s important to keep in mind that little ones express pretend in different ways and at different times. The stages below are based on averages, so there’s no need to worry if your child hasn’t executed the perfect make-believe tea party just yet!
Here’s a snapshot of how symbolic play develops throughout months 25-36.
Throughout this stage, you may notice your child using symbolic problem-solving to figure out new ways to do things. For instance, instead of only using blocks to build, they might start to include other objects when building something, like sticks or buckets. They also start to use more reasoning in their imaginative play, such as putting on an apron before pretending to bake a cake. They start to use more props and multiple steps when pretending, too. A toddler at this age can play dress up, set a table, or serve fake cookies – all while maintaining a stimulating conversation with a teddy bear.
This is a time when parents and caregivers can start to see how symbolic play allows a toddler to express and understand emotions. Role-play activities with stuffed animals, dolls, or action figures provides a safe place to talk, for example, about feeling sad about Nana living so far away, or feeling afraid of the dog next door. During this type of play, they also experiment with tone of voice. You might hear them imitating caregivers or pretending to be someone else when they talk to imaginary friends.
At this stage, symbolic play becomes more sophisticated. Toddlers use their imagination to help make sense of their world. For instance, a toddler might pretend to be a doctor giving his stuffed animal a check-up after a visit to the pediatrician. On the other hand, they also play out fictional storylines and scenarios that have nothing to do with their own life! In other words, their world of make-believe is expanding in every direction at this time.
This is when pretend play becomes a precursor to cooperative play. Cooperative play involves a toddler exploring playing with peers for a specific purpose. As practice for this type of play, your toddler may assign you the role of a “bad guy” while they pretend to be a superhero. Even when your toddler is playing pretend by themselves, imaginary friends are still involved. Children at this age may read stories to or perform dance routines for an audience of stuffed animals, for example.
Symbolic play will continue to evolve in increasingly complex and exciting ways. Be sure to allow plenty of time for it, and get in on the fun when you can, too!