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94. Symbolic play: the key to your child's imagination

Sep 19, 2020 • 7 min read
94. Symbolic play: the key to your child's imagination

You've probably heard that play is critical for language development. But why is that? Is it simply that play gives children the opportunity to speak and to interact with others? Partly, but it goes deeper than that.

Words are symbols. They stand in for the real thing. So when I say 'car', I'm using the word as a label. I'm not presenting you with the actual object. This is abstract thought, and it's key to language development.

Toddlers like to eat pretend food using a real spoon, or to feed their toys. The props they use for their play have to be real or realistic. But as children get older, they start to use objects that bear little resemblance to the thing they're trying to represent. A block becomes a mobile phone or the king's treasure. It is now a symbol.

This explains one of the criticisms of the Montessori approach - real tasks are favoured over pretend ones. The home corner is never turned into the Three Bears' house or a hotel. So opportunities for symbolic play are limited.

By the time children reach preschool, they are happy to give toys voices of their own and create worlds for them. By four or five, they'll start to role-play, to take on imaginary personas. They, themselves, have become the symbol.

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I'm Alexis, father of four and founder of One Hundred Toys. I taught in London primary schools for thirteen years, specialising in the early years. Now I write about all things play here on the blog. Read more

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