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Symbolic And Imaginary Play

To a young infant or toddler, a block is a block. He might stack them or bang them together. But when a child reaches about age 18 months to 2 years toys become symbols for other objects. Now a few blocks stacked on top of each other are a house, or a wooden block being pushed along the floor is a car, of course complete with “vroom, vroom” sounds. Next that same building block is put to their ear as they copy mom and dad’s cell phone.

Why is this pretend type of play so important for children? What skills do they develop when they are imagining? The benefits of play, and specifically imaginative play, helps to prepare even the youngest children for school, developing important cognitive and social skills.

Imaginary play is how a child learns abstract thought. If they can imagine a box is a pirate ship they are thinking abstractly.Later on, it will be essential to think abstractly. They need to understand how a letter symbolizes a sound or a number represents a certain amount. Pretend play helps the child to think of one object as representing something else.

They also learn to problem-solve. What can they use for a flag or a cannon on that pirate ship? What can the pirates do for food? What do they do if their ship sinks? What could be their life boat?

Role play and imaginary play helps the child gain social skills. They learn how to interact with others as they are the princess who needs to be rescued, or the store keeper who has to keep his customers happy. They can practice adult roles when they are a fireman or teacher in a pretend school. They learn to communicate as they have to direct the play or make decisions together. Kids learn to gain self-confidence when they succeed in their new roles. If they can be a “successful entrepreneur” at age 3 when they are a candy shop owner, they are certainly preparing to be a creative, successful adult.

By age 3 or 4 “pretend” play is a dominant activity. Their imaginations start to explode. Now they not only use imaginations with objects but also have elaborate fantasy roles for themselves and their friends. One minute they can be a knight fighting a dragon with a paper towel tube sword, and the next a super hero with a bath towel cape. At this age have items like costumes and dress up items available. Play kitchens and tools, puppets or objects like boxes and blankets to build a fort. A sandbox is a wonderful medium for imagination.Wooden building blocks are a natural additional to toys to engage their “pretend” play.

One day I was playing with my grandson , who is 2. He got out a large book, some wooden blocks and some toy trucks. He said that the book was “Home Depot” and he wanted to go there and get some tools. So we drove the toy trucks and pretended to load in drills, hammers, saws and shovels. He said we needed “his” sized tools and “‘Daddy” sized tools. We pretended to load the truck, got pretend money from his pockets and paid the “store man”.

What did my grandson gain from this pretend play? His little mind could think beyond concrete things he can see and touch. He loves trucks, tractors and tools and now he could pretend he had them all. He thought carefully what things he knew were at his “Home Depot”. If I said here’s a screwdriver, he said he needed screws. For a hammer he wanted nails and boards. He was very interested in this activity and played for a long time, developing a longer attention span. Mostly it was fun for both of us and created a great memory for me.

Toys that foster imaginary play are usually readily available and inexpensive or cost nothing. Have an assortment of boxes, toilet paper tubes, old hats and dress up shoes available. Save some junk mail and stickers for stamps so they can pretend to be the mailman. Cans and boxes of food, a pretend grocery cart and adding machine for a cash register. The list is endless.

Parents can encourage this type of play by suggesting an imaginary scenario. Have them pretend they are on a safari with all their stuffed animals. Let them get out the blankets and build a giant fortress in the living room, play in it with them. Help them build the biggest castle ever from wooden building blocks. The more we enable and support their creative, imaginary play the more they develop intellectually, and socially.