Hip hip hooray for symbolic play!


We know how important play is for the under-three crowd. But what types of play should we be focusing on to promote communication? Quinn & Kidd looked at two different types of play: functional vs. symbolic play. Which one promotes greater communication development? 

Functional play involves using toys for their intended purpose. To promote functional play, the children and parents in this study were provided with magnetic drawing boards, wooden peg and hammer sets, puzzles, and musical instruments. Conversely, symbolic play involves the non-literal use of objects, such as using one object to represent another. The authors added that this typically occurs ~in the spirit of enjoyment~ (lol). To promote symbolic play between parent and child, the pair was given toy household items, toy phones, a teddy bear, and ambiguous items like block shapes and a piece of cloth.

This study found that during symbolic play, parents and their children engaged in joint attention more often and for longer periods of time. Symbolic play also elicited significantly more symbolic gestures from both toddlers & their parents. Symbolic gestures are gestures that represent an object or action, such as using fingers to pretend to comb a doll’s hair.

Joint attention and use of symbolic gestures are both foundational skills that are crucial for language development. The authors suggest that symbolic play is so vital to communication development because it requires collective negotiation and agreement of the representational function of objects. Symbolic play cannot successfully occur unless both the parent and child understand what the objects represent. These negotiations occur naturally and without the use of language. Toddler’s brains are pretty amazing, huh?

This study contributes to our understanding of the importance of engaging in symbolic play when working with our population. Symbolic play naturally requires the use of foundational skills necessary for communication. So, feel free to keep on using that hairbrush as a microphone, SLPs!


Quinn, S., & Kidd, E. (2018). Symbolic play promotes non-verbal communicative exchange in infant-caregiver dyads. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 10.1111/bjdp.12251.