My daughter just turned two years old. In the last few weeks she started using objects not as what they are, but as something else. For example, she is using her Hellix mini as a boat and a wooden rainbow as a fence for animals. This type of playing is called symbolic play.

Symbolic play starts with the symbolic thinking, the skill of mentally visualizing things, objects and people even though they are not physically present. Between 24 and 30 months (age can vary), children use symbolic play to grow on the cognitive, social and affective aspects.

While playing, children often mimic reality: objects, actions and events are utilized as symbols of something that is not there but that can be imagined [Bornstein, O’Reilly, 1993]. In this play category fit role play games, transitional objects (dolls, teddy bears, puppets), and construction blocks (lego, wooden blocks).

Below, I give you two examples from my experience. My daughter Sofia will soon have a new sister and started using dolls differently. In the past, she used dolls just as passengers for her pushchair. Now, she takes care of them, washes them, cuddles them, and she tells us that dolls are her little sister. Another example is when we recently lost our beloved dog Mischia and Sofia started using her wooden medical kit to cure her teddy bears. This way, through symbolic play, she was trying to transform the experiences she could not control into something she could control.

The play modalities that children experience are tightly related to their emotional development and can change with the age. For this reason, the act of playing closely relates with the children psychological well being. Symbolic play work as a balancer and as a natural psychotherapy, that shield children from the fear of the unknown and the fear of precariousness. 

Playing can also become the voice of the aforementioned problems, as Freud described in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, when he interprets a game played by his grandson Ernst at the age of eighteen months. Ernst had the occasional habit of taking any small object he could get hold of and throwing it away from him into a corner, under the bed. As he did this, he gave vent to a loud, long-drawn-out ‘o-o-o-o,’ accompanied by an expression of interest and satisfaction. His mother agreed in thinking that this represented the German word “fort”. Freud interpreted this behavior as a way of obtaining satisfaction by causing things to be “gone”. A short time later, he observed the child playing with a reel that had a piece of string tied around it. He would toss the reel away from him to where it could no longer be seen, before pulling it back into view and hailing its reappearance with a gleeful “Da! ” (“There!”). 

Freud noticed that this simple game, “repeated untiringly” by the child, in absence of his mother, served to control an unpleasant situation: the separation from his mother. The pulling back of the reel symbolized the fact that even if the mother was not there, she would have returned. The game as a self defence mechanism against fear, in this case fear of separation.

Jean Piaget, attributes to play a central role in the development of the personal cognitive function of the brain and in the development of the child character. Piaget correlates the play development with the cognitive development and claims that play is thus the primary tool to understand the child cognitive process. 

In its first year of life children handle one object at a time, activating behaviors related to sense and motion. This play is called explorative, in contrast to the symbolic play,  as it allows to collect information about objects and their characteristics.

In the second year of its life, children’s actions become more complex and involve objects that transform into other objects. Play becomes symbolic, as it constitutes a way of representing symbolic acts. For Sofia, a simple cardboard box can become a vehicle to ride on the beach or the cozy home of her granny. 

According to Piaget, the development of symbolic play can be divided into five stages.

  • Transitional play, like pretending to talk to the phone handset
  • Symbolic play toward the self, like pretending to sleep
  • Symbolic play towards others, like hugging a doll
  • Symbolic play sequence, like dialing a number on the phone handset and make a call
  • Symbolic substitute (using one or more symbolic objects), like using a small wooden cube as a phone to dial a number and make a call

In the third year of life, children improve the frequency and complexity of symbolic play.

An additional interpretation of symbolic play comes from the russian psychologist Lev Semenovic Vygotskij, who considers play as the active force for the emotional and human development of the child in addition to the cognitive development theorized by Piaget. Vygotskij sees symbolic play as an interaction between the child and his parents, rather than a solitary activity [Smo Lucha, 1998]. The development of play in the child happens also through the adult that answers to his requests. In this case, the adult has a role of “scaffolding”. This support will be temporary and limited to the time that is strictly needed for the child to become independent.

With my daughter Sofia, for example, when I propose an activity I show her what we are going to do and then I help her do it on her own. I always try to propose activities that are right for her age, in order to reduce her frustration. When she is in trouble, I try to be positive saying something like “you are putting a lot of effort, if you do not succeed on the first try, pause it and try later”. With puzzles, for example, she leaves the most difficult pieces on the side to reduce frustration and, when the puzzle is mostly completed, she addresses these pieces in a calmer and more successfully way. 

Regardless of the different theories, symbolic play is important for the growth of children, as it structures their whole character. Play has an high evolutive value too, as it cognitively stimulates the child and helps him to access his inner self. Schiller says that “Man is never so authentically himself than when at play” because when playing, man finds and learn himself. Therefore, let our children free their creativity through symbolic play, in order to allow them to elaborate and imagine the world in their own way.