Before children learn to engage into meaningful symbolic play, whereas they are eager to brush your hair, pretend to give Elmo a bath, or imagine being a powerful Spiderman, there is a number of earlier stages that must unfold. These early pre- symbolic stages serve to prepare and wire the little brain for the future interaction with the outside world. There is a good reason behind why educators carefully study children’s play at various developmental stages (e.g. what toys are used, how, and whether caregivers or peers are able to join in). Play is the medium through which a developing brain is continuously learning about the self, surrounding people, objects, and the relationships among these. Play equips the infant to learn the important skills of social communication, role playing, and critical thinking, all of which are needed to eventually participate in the real world! Play also sheds unique light onto how the child sees, experiences, and ultimately thinks of the world. There is so much we can tell by just observing a child at play. But let’s look into exactly how the little ones arrive at imagining they are Superheroes.
As your baby infant learns about the world, with each interaction, she begins to collect information about all the things, people, and sensations that come into her delicate baby territory. The infant notices you, the loving sleepless caregiver, she notices objects that appear in her sight, she learns about the surrounding movements and voices as you attend to her needs and move her around in your arms day in and day out. All this listening, looking, and feeling is a whole lot of information for the baby- information that blends into a myriad of sensations that will ultimately become the familiar. This is an important and exciting first stage in which YOU, the caregiver, have the power to create positive associations and experiences around how your baby perceives the daily touch, talk, play, bath, and feeding time. Once the infant learns the basic routine of getting through the day, she will be ready to explore beyond it!
When the basic skill to attend and focus on a person or an object is established, the infant will want to physically explore his territory so that he can learn more about the people and objects in his environment. This is where physical development must support the little explorer in his ability to hold his head up, sit, and, eventually crawl and walk; all of which will bring about more mobility, additional experiences, and new information about the world. The mobile infant will want to touch, manipulate, and taste everything he encounters. He will mouth every object to learn about its properties, because that’s how the young child explores- via basic physical sensations. Hence the name of this early play phase – sensori- exploratory (Westby, 2000). So, at this point of development the infant’s cognition basically drives him to get acquainted with the surroundings through the use of five senses: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. While you certainly want to monitor all the moving around and mouthing of objects to make sure the infant is safe and sound, overly limiting the child’s developmental need to be active and adventurous around the home goes against the very nature of this sensori- exploratory stage. So, let them explore!
Having mouthed and manipulated the objects of interest, the infant is now ready to move toward more advanced play. As she learns object permanence and cause- effect relationships between objects and actions (emerge around 9- 12 months of age), you will begin to see a change in play. Your little explorer will find it thrilling that she can press a button and activate sounds and lights on a favorite toy. She will also want to experiment banging objects together and tossing items away, only to repeat the process all over again minutes later. The baby infant will learn the in-ness of empty boxes and discover that objects can be dumped in and out as well as grouped together. What fun! It is rather useless to try and prevent this seemingly purposeless activity from replaying itself. At this phase your child’s cognition supports just this type of cause- effect play. So, engage with and copy exactly what your youngster is doing- have fun making a mess with her! Children learn to imitate others by being imitated and this is a great time to start teaching that. Here, you can also start introducing the important skill of turn- taking, as you wait to follow your infant’s turn in throwing the next toy into an empty container. This basic turn- taking in play, eventually becomes a life- long social skill used by all humans across all interactions and speaking situations.
At around 13- 17 months of age typically developing children will take a leap toward sophisticating their play skills even more. They will begin to use objects according to function and will learn to combine objects together in play (Westby, 2000). With this milestone, children are also eager to find hidden objects, which makes it all the more fun for the whole family to participate in this initial “hide and seek”. You will notice that your child will begin to come to you with her pretend spoon and insist that you eat. She will bring a pretend brush in an effort to brush your (in need of a make- over ?) hair. She will initiate interactions more to gain your attention and audience, request help (gestures or single words likely), and just experience social communication. You will start to see a lot of action imitation during joint play as the child will now be actively copying what you are doing. This means your child is now ready for you to join into her play! The fascinating cognitive shift in understanding the concept of self, object permanence, cause- effect and functional object use drives the infant’s ability to develop additional mental representations toward what the educators describe as early symbolic play. In fact, the child may now be able to carry out basic pretend actions, which she has experienced herself in her day to day routine (e.g. being fed, put to sleep, given bath, etc.). She will act upon the favorite doll or stuffed animal taking that initial role of being the caregiver that feeds or gives a bath, the role that you have so wonderfully modeled for her since birth. This early symbolic play will evolve even more in the next 6- 12 months as your child continues to draw on the ideas about the world, weaving these into her play schemas that are gradually becoming more imaginative, detailed, and elaborate!
The ability to use one object to represent another is intelligent, mentally complex, and symbolic. The ability to be symbolic and imaginative without the use of objects or props is one of the highest meta- cognitive state that we as adults are able to step into so effortlessly. Having an imaginative and thinking mind implies the presence of many critical skills that we have come to define as intelligence. However, building toward the capable mind takes time, real effort, and most importantly, practice. This is why children need ample opportunity to practice during play, so they can essentially develop many of the necessary skills to be successful humans later on in life. So, enjoy every little milestone your child gifts you every day and remember that you are that first important social opportunity through which the infant will come to know the world!
Thank you for reading and Happy playing!