Often, when I work with Joey, I bring a book along with toy animals and props so that we can act out the book together. What I often want is to engage Joey in symbolic play during or after we’ve read the book.
Symbolic play is an essential developmental stage, and once children have a strong ability to play using a piece of plastic to represent something else – whether it is a person, a car, or a dinosaur, the child shows an ability for abstract thought.
Serena Wieder and Harry Wachs write that “Symbolic play is the most important vehicle for a child’s emotional and cognitive development. Symbols allow the child to step back from perceptions of the real thing to represent these things in mental images, which can be used along with pictures they draw, words, and/or toy props, and dramatic movement to express thoughts and feelings. The use of symbols enables children to begin active purposefully without being tied to the immediate sensory experience and without having to act on these experience directly.”
Symbolic play is actually the brain experiencing and practicing abstract thought, which is key to executive functioning skills, and math and literacy development. To engage in symbolic play, a child must be able to assign meaning to an inanimate object, and apply that meaning to a play scheme. A green plastic toy becomes a toy dinosaur, which roars, stomps, and eats zebras. The child who is able to assign this play scheme to a piece of plastic, is showing that he can experience higher levels of concrete thinking. It is this thinking that allows a child to understand that the number 3 represents three things, and can be added to two more things to create five things. This cognitive flexibility allows a child to recognize that letters represent sounds, and when put together in different ways, represent words.
Developmental Stages of Play
Sometimes I find myself forgetting how important all stages of play are, as I get caught up in pushing Joey into symbolic play. Yet I need to remember that play is building neurological connections at each stage. After all, my background is as a teacher, and I often return time and time again to trying to teach Joey to do symbolic play. Yet if he is not ready for it, then this is not play but work, and he will not get the cognitive benefits from engaging in this sort of play. I need to step back and remember that play is a developmental processes itself, and that each stage can be supported and strengthened to support the stages coming next.
Like any skill, play itself has a developmental trajectory. It begins as early as infancy, in those first back and forth moments when the child is regulating himself and cuing off his caregiver. Sometimes it is easy for us to overlook those early moments of interacting, and forget how important they are, or that they are an important developmental step in play. Serena Wider and Harry Wachs write in their book on Visual/Spatial Portals to Thinking, Feeling and Movement, “Development comes only through personal discovery.” We cannot decide that a child is going to play a certain way, or on a specific developmental level, because then it is no longer play if we refer back to Brown’s properties. Instead, we can meet a child where he or she is at their developmental stage, and then support them in bringing them up to the next stage of development.
A current play study out of Northeastern University, is examining how play with an object develops. Their research, which is still in progress, lists a set of play stages from Indiscriminate Actions, Discriminate Actions, Presentation Combinations, General Combinations, Learned Combinations, Pretend Self, Specific Physical Combinations, Varied Action Sequence, Same Action Sequence, Substitutions, Doll-as-Actor, Complex Sequences, Person-as-Actor, and finally, Fantasy (DEC Conference, Portland, Oregon, 2017). For Joey, it appears he is on the early stage of this play series, falling into the learned combinations stage, but not yet reaching pretend self, or the doll-as-actor stage.
For now, Joey’s play is often him manipulating objects. He loves buses, cars, things that move, and plastic animals with long necks he can hold. He especially loves balls. According to Project Play, his play stages would be in the Learned Combinations period, before engaging in pretend play. If we look at his development through the lens of Stanley Greenspan’s Functional, Emotional, and Developmental Capacities, Joey is in the early stages of two way back and forth communication. Instead of spending time attempting to push Joey into symbolic play, I need to honor where he is in his play development, and continue to provide opportunities to that can lend themselves to symbolic play.
Wieder, S & Wachs, H., (2012). Visual/Spatial Portals to Thinking, Feeling and Movement: Advancing competencies and emotional development in children with learning and autism spectrum disorders. Profectum Foundation, Mendman, New Jersey. p. 50-58.