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How Pretend Play Promotes Symbolic Thought

The Relationship between Symbolic Thought and Pretend Play

At its core, symbolic thought is the capacity to use mental representation. This can be images of objects or actions held in our mind or language where words represent our thoughts and ideas. Symbolic thought is a major developmental accomplishment for children. It begins in toddlerhood and becomes increasingly sophisticated throughout childhood.

One of the most common and universal places symbolic thought is seen is in pretend play. These are so closely intertwined that pretend play is often referred to as symbolic play. In pretend play children show the ability to use objects, actions and ideas as ‘stand-ins’ to represent other objects, actions and ideas. They are able to project an imagined situation onto a real one using meaningful and orderly sequences. Children take on and represent many roles.

Pretend Play and the Symbolic Thought Areas of Cognitive Flexibility and Language

Through pretend play children practice and become competent in forming symbolic thought relationships. Two particularly significant areas where this occurs are cognitive flexibility and language.

Cognitive Flexibility is the ability to transform actions and objects mentally by using their symbolic representations. It calls on attention, memory and reasoning and is particularly important when a situation is changing or unexpected. Cognitive flexibility is closely associated with better problem-solving and with creativity. When children engage in pretend play they are motivated and challenged to think about how objects and actions can be used in ways that are different than how they appear on the surface. As they construct make-believe scenarios, they are in essence solving a ‘problem’-how to design and carry out the pretend play sequences they imagine.

Language is a central area of symbolic thought. As children are more prone to use complex language during play, substantial evidence exists of its association with advanced language skills such as vocabulary and comprehension. Children call on language extensively in pretend play. For example, they use language to assign and negotiate roles (“I’m the vet, you be the puppy.”), they often narrate a ‘script’ (“You have to come see me ‘cause you can’t walk so good.”), and of course they get into character (“Oh poor puppy! Don’t cry, I’ll fix you.”).

How Parents Can Facilitate Pretend Play to Promote Symbolic Thought

Let’s look at the vet scenario to illustrate some great ways to take pretend play up a notch to enhance symbolic thinking.

Give the theme a twist. Children usually have favorite scenarios but you can help them dive deeper. One productive way is to give them problems to solve. For example, you might be assigned the role of pet owner. You could say “I can’t come to the vet office. Can you make a house call?” or you have various sized pets who need different exam tables.

Invent or combine make-believe situations. If your child also has other well-liked pretend play scenarios, suggest combining these to stretch their imaginations. For instance, a vet who travels on a spaceship to treat animals in another world, is a pet chef with a cooking show, or has a different approach to treatment-perhaps playing a musical instrument to soothe the animals before procedures.

Keep it going. Use the vocabulary and concepts you introduce in pretend play in other situations. This will help your child make links between language, memory and reasoning. For instance, if you see a mother patting a fussy baby you could say “Oh look. That mommy is soothing her baby. That’s like when you soothed the puppies when they had to get shots by playing your xylophone.” To advance learning, you might watch videos of funny pet antics, visit the library for books about vets, or attend a pet show.

Be well-stocked and organized. If you have ample props and toys that are organized, your child will be able to generate ideas and implement them with ease. If they are ready to play but have to wait or look too long for what they want and need, the moment can pass and frustration take its place.

As pretend play is so wonderfully active and open-ended, the opportunities for children to develop and refine symbolic thinking are practically endless!

Major Sources

Bergen, D. (2002). The role of pretend play in children's cognitive development. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 4(1), n1.

Deák, G. O., & Wiseheart, M. (2015). Cognitive flexibility in young children: General or task-specific capacity?. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 138, 31-53.

Weisberg, D. S. (2015). Pretend play. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 6(3), 249-261.

Weisberg, D. S., Zosh, J. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Talking it up: Play, language development, and the role of adult support. American Journal of Play, 6(1), 39-54.

About the Author

Lilla Dale McManis, MEd., PhD., uses her training and experience as a psychologist, child developmentalist, educator, and parent to promote positive child outcomes through informed and effective parenting. Dr. McManis is President & CEO of Parent in the Know, a parenting-role and child social-emotional assessment and reporting service. She believes strongly in translating parenting research into meaningful practice.

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