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Foundation: Symbolic Play

California Infant/Toddler Learning & Development Foundations.
The developing ability to use actions, objects, or ideas to represent other actions, objects, or ideas
8 months 18 months 36 months

At around 8 months of age, children become familiar with objects and actions through active exploration. Children also build knowledge of people, action, objects, and ideas through observation. (Fenson and others 1976; Rogoff and others 2003)

At around 18 months of age, children use one object to represent another object and engage in one or two simple actions of pretend play.

At around 36 months of age, children engage in make-believe play involving several sequenced steps, assigned roles, and an overall plan and sometimes pretend by imagining an object without needing the concrete object present. (30–36 mos.; Parks 2004, 29)

For example, the child may:

  • Cause toys to make noise by shaking, banging, and squeezing them. (5.5–8 mos.; Parks 2004, 58; by 12 mos.; American Academy of Pediatrics 2004, 243)

  • Roll car back and forth on floor. (6–11 mos.; Parks 2004, 26)

For example, the child may:

  • Pretend to drink from an empty cup by making slurping noises and saying “ah” when finished. (Segal 2004, 39)

  • Begin to engage in pretend play by using a play spoon to stir in the kitchen area. (12–18 mos.; Lerner and Ciervo 2003)

  • Pretend that the banana is a telephone by picking it up, holding it to the ear, and saying, “Hi!” (12–18 mos.; Lerner and Ciervo 2003)

  • Laugh at an older brother when he puts a bowl on his head like a hat. (12–18 mos.; Parks 2004, 317)

  • Imitate a few steps of adult behavior during play; for example, pretend to feed the baby doll with the toy spoon and bowl. (15–18 mos.; Parks 2004, 27)

  • Use a rectangular wooden block as a phone. (18–24 mos.; Parks 2004, 28)

For example, the child may:

  • Assign roles to self and others when playing in the dramatic play area (for example, “I’ll be the daddy, you be the baby”), even though the child may not stay in her role throughout the play sequence. (30–36 mos.; Parks 2004, 29; 24 mos.; Segal 2004, 43)

  • Line up a row of chairs and communicate, “All aboard! The train is leaving.” (36 mos.; Vygotsky 1978, 111)

  • Use two markers to represent people in the dollhouse by moving them around as if they were walking. (36 mos.; Vygotsky 1978, 111)

  • Stir “cake batter” while holding an imaginary spoon or serve an invisible burrito on a plate. (30–36 mos.; Parks 2004, 29; scaled score of 10 for 27:16–29:15 mos.; Bayley 2006, 69)

  • Communicate with self during pretend play to describe actions to self; for example, “Now I stir the soup.” (Hart and Risley 1999, 125)

  • Plan with other children what they are going to pretend before starting to play; for example, “Let’s play doggies!” (Segal 2004, 39; 36 mos.; Meisels and others 2003, 74)

  • Pretend to be a baby during dramatic play because there is a new baby at home. (36 mos.; Meisels and others 2003, 73)

  • Build a small town with blocks and then use the toy fire truck to pretend to put out a fire in the town. (By 36 mos.; American Academy of Pediatrics 2004, 309)

Behaviors leading up to the foundation (4 to 7 months)

During this period, the child may:

  • Explore toys with hands and mouth. (3–6 mos.; Parks 2004, 10)

Behaviors leading up to the foundation (9 to 17 months)

During this period, the child may:

  • Use two items that go together; for example, brush a doll’s hair with brush, put a spoon in a bowl, or use a hammer to pound an object through a hole. (9–15 mos.; Parks 2004, 26–27)

  • Use objects in pretend play the way they were intended to be used; for example, pretend to drink coffee or tea from play coffee cup. (Scaled score of 10 for 15:16–16:15 mos.; Bayley 2006, 62)

Behaviors leading up to the foundation (19 to 35 months)

During this period, the child may:

  • Use the stuffed animals to play “veterinarian” one day and then to play “farmer” the next day. (18–24 mos.; Lerner and Ciervo 2003)

  • Communicate “Time for night-night” to a doll while playing house. (22–24 mos.; Parks 2004, 133)

  • Complete three or more actions in a sequence of pretend play so the actions have a beginning, middle, and end, such as giving the baby doll a bath, putting his pajamas on, and putting him to sleep. (24–30 mos.; Parks 2004, 28; by 36 mos.; American Academy of Pediatrics 2004, 309; scaled score of 10 for 29:16–30:15 mos.; Bayley 2006, 73)

  • Pretend that the doll or stuffed animal has feelings, such as making a whining noise to indicate that the stuffed puppy is sad. (24–30 mos.; Parks 2004, 28)

  • Make the stuffed animals move, as if they were alive, during pretend play. (24–30 mos.; Parks 2004, 28)

  • Engage in extended pretend play that has a theme, such as birthday party or doctor. (24–30 mos.; Parks 2004, 29)

  • Use abstract things to represent other things in pretend play; for example, use dough or sand to represent a birthday cake and sticks or straws to represent candles. (24–30 mos.; Parks 2004, 29; scaled score of 10 for 24:16–25:15 mos.; Bayley 2006, 70; Segal 2004, 39)

Next Foundation: Attention Maintenance

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Questions:   Early Education Division | 916-322-6233
Last Reviewed: Tuesday, November 7, 2023
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