Playing pretend: why symbolic play is so important

Giocare a fare finta: perché è così importante il gioco simbolico - La stanza nel bosco

Importance of symbolic play for the child

Symbolic play is a playful modality through which the child is able to represent, through the materials at his disposal, something that is not really present, but which has been elaborated by his imagination.
In particular, the game of "pretend" represents a very important means of offering the child the opportunity to have creative sensory and motor experiences, and therefore to enhance his mental and bodily potential, which often remain unexpressed if not properly used .
It is generally an extremely positive activity characterized above all by a remarkable spontaneity, which proceeds following the logical scheme "beginning-evolution-conclusion".
Thanks to the game of pretending , children get to know themselves and their emotionality better, as the sensitive perceptions that are sometimes censored can instead fully manifest themselves since they concern another individual.
While playing this symbolic game, the protagonists are not imitating someone or something, but rather they are playing out a story invented by themselves.
In this way they can leave maximum freedom, creativity and imagination , developing and highlighting even problematic feelings, which would normally be censored.

What are the developmental stages of play for a child?

The main developmental stages of play for the child have been classified into 4 groups, namely:

β€’ exploratory phase,

corresponding to the period between birth and 12 months, when the child is led to involve all the sense organs precisely to explore the outside world and begin to interact with it.


Such an attitude makes it possible to interpret the characteristics and functions of things, then associating them with certain functions;


β€’ imitative phase,

corresponding to the period of time between 12 and 18 months, during which the child develops his main psycho-motor skills by imitating what he sees around him, to realize all the potential available;


β€’ symbolic phase,


which begins after 18 months and continues up to 24 months and which arises from ideas and not from objects, which instead are transformed into what can be used to create a real mental scheme;


β€’ stage of fiction,


between 24 and 36 months, which allows the little one to enhance fantasy, creativity and imagination thanks to the representative capacity of thought, capable of developing concepts independent of reality.


Consequently, it becomes possible to create mental associations typical of the game of pretending, a playful typology that develops above all in kindergarten.

Basically, children are led to play in groups with their peers, to share together an imaginary reality ("pretend that") typical of symbolic play, where everyone can improvise their own behavior without following predefined schemes.

Especially during nursery school, children are particularly intolerant of the first impositions dictated by teachers and for this very reason they need ample space/time to express their personal freedom.

In this sense, the game of pretending is confirmed as the ideal means to combine the needs of the child and those of the educators in a harmonious and well-balanced way.

It may happen that children also stage episodes of their individual experience, which they do not want to reveal to others, but which they feel they have to express: hence the deepest meaning of pretending, which becomes a very effective means of exorcising anxieties, fears and disappointments.

The maximum creativity of this game then allows you to overcome limits and insecurities, imagining yourself different and interacting with the world of adults, without the fear of being judged and therefore rejected in some way.

At the basis of symbolic play there is always the search to be accepted for what one is, regardless of the limits (almost always self-imposed) that children begin to set themselves from the first months of life.

Features of the game of "pretend"

The fundamental prerequisite of the pretend game is based on the exercise of creativity, fantasy and imagination, characteristics aimed at developing the self-awareness of the child in a peculiar way who can thus approach unknown worlds by enhancing his skills not only in relational but also subjective.

Playing at "being someone else" then allows the little one to understand the points of view of others which are often completely different, unpredictable and conflicting with respect to his own, pushing him towards the mysterious border between fantasy and reality.

In this type of ludic activity the subject can make use of things, people, actions and behaviors that assume the role of symbol and which therefore can be accepted without any danger.

The symbol usually also serves to represent a missing element, which could be threatening or desirable depending on its intrinsic value.

When they have to represent situations, children use rather complex skills given that, even if they are fully aware of it, pretending is a multifaceted tool of great symbolic importance.

Some of them manage to exorcise fears and anxieties that, in other contexts, would be intractable but which instead, thanks to fiction, lose much of their potential for danger.

In fact, children need to relive, through the protected world of fiction, traumatic and distressing experiences that they would not have the courage to face if not by means of an adequate symbology.

An interesting connection of the game of pretend is the one connected to the Theory of Mind, according to which the child is enabled to reflect not only on his own thoughts, but also on those of others.

Also in this sector, more intellectual than emotional, the symbolic ludic activity can play an essential role as it allows to enhance unexpressed and sometimes repressed skills which are instead indispensable for mental maturation.

Symbolism of the game of "pretend"

Playing pretend requires that the subject transforms into someone else, perhaps a fairytale hero, a cuddly toy or simply a person who arouses his admiration.

In the space between fantasy and reality, this game becomes an extremely complex mental and emotional activity, as it encompasses a set of values ​​valued as fundamental in early childhood.

After the first year of life, any child enters the repetitive phase, in which he is attracted by the iteration of gestures and behaviors that have affected his mind.

At the same time the symbolic game begins , through which people, objects and behaviors offer the opportunity to subjectively interpret reality according to individual needs.

Often the child transforms objects that lose their real function to acquire a fantastic one, following an evolution of thought that creates often unthinkable connections.

Consequently, the structure of the game proceeds in parallel with the development of the child's personality , which begins to use imagination, creativity and intelligence to represent the contingency.

The analysis of symbolic play, which often also includes the use of a toy cushion that represents an animal for example, offers educators and parents the precious opportunity to understand children's personalities more deeply and, at the same time, to consolidate mutual emotional bond.

In fact, adults can take advantage of a privileged observation point, not only when they are involved in the playful activity, but also when they remain on the sidelines.

In symbolic play, the child will be able to develop isolated activities, with peers or with adult figures, depending on the type of setting chosen.

In any circumstance it would be appropriate to encourage such activities to encourage the mental and psycho-emotional development of children, who show a clear propensity for this type of entertainment from the age of 18 months.

It still happens very often that traditional toys are linked to specific stereotypes, almost always based on the division of the sexes (doll for females and tool stall for males).

Symbolic play, on the other hand, has the fundamental advantage of overcoming this rigid distinction of roles, ensuring everyone has the most varied experiences, to offer the widest opportunity for choice in any circumstance.

kids playing cooking

Why is pretend play so important?

The game of pretending, which is considered one of the most characteristic examples of symbolic play, is very important for the development of the child starting from 18 months of life.

In fact, it allows you to:


  • exercise the imagination;
  • improve creativity and imagination;
  • develop self-awareness;
  • acquire the tools to control personal and other people's emotions;
  • enhance cognitive abilities;
  • sharpen social relationships;
  • enrich the language;
  • enhance the development of abstract ideas;
  • foster self-reflection skills;
  • support theory of mind;
  • make assumptions about the behavior of others.

Assuming that the game is a real training ground for life, which offers the opportunity to deepen interpersonal relationships between peers and to increase self-awareness, the role of pretending proves to be very important not only for intellectual (improve mental, cognitive and associative potential), but also of language.

Symbolic play is one of the most significant activities through which children learn to develop their own personality, overcoming psychological blocks that would otherwise be removed.

This is why pretend play is also widely used in psycho-curative pathways, as it offers the therapist the opportunity to explore very intimate aspects of the child which, in order to defend themselves from suffering, they usually tend to hide.

With this method, on the other hand, the thought is separated from the objects and the symbol attracts all the negative values ​​upon itself, consequently freeing the subject from any problems.

The beginning of the real symbolic game is connected to the two years of age, that is when the child has assumed the ability to transform objects, making them from time to time what he needs to better face reality.

In the period of time between 18 months and about 10 years, the game of pretending therefore assumes an extremely important role for the psycho-physical development of children.

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