Difference Between Symbolic Play and Pretend Play

There is no difference between symbolic play and pretend play. Pretend play is simply another name for symbolic play.

Both these terms refer to a child’s ability to use objects and actions to represent other objects and actions as play. A child using a bedsheet as a superhero cape or using a stick as a gun, and a child hosting a tea party for dolls are some examples of this type of play. This type of play usually involves imagination, pretending and imitation.

Key Areas Covered

1. What is Symbolic Play or Pretend Play
     – Definition, Characteristics, Stages, Importance
2. Difference Between Symbolic Play and Pretend Play
     – Comparison of Key Differences

Key Terms

Pretend Play, Symbolic Play, Role-Playing

What is Symbolic Play or Pretend Play?

Symbolic play is the ability of children to use objects and actions to represent other objects and actions as play. For example, holding a block of wood as a telephone and talking into it or getting into a box and driving like a car.  Symbolic play generally involves imagination and imitation. This type of play benefits a child’s cognitive development.

Main Difference - Symbolic Play vs Pretend Play

A child’s symbolic thinking usually develops at around 8 months, when he or she becomes familiar with objects and actions through observing and exploring the surroundings. There are several stages of symbolic play. A child usually starts this play by a concept of pretence with real-life objects; for example, pretending to talk on an actual phone. When a child is around 18 months of age, he or she begins to engage in pretend play. At this stage, you can observe how the child uses one object to represent another, like pretending to feed a doll or pretending to ride a broomstick as a horse. Furthermore, this play is mostly solitary, assigning roles to inanimate objects.

As children reach the preschool age (typically 3-5 years), they become more capable of imagining roles behind their pretend play. We can observe societal influence in these make-believe plays. At this stage, they are capable of assigning various roles to themselves and others; for example, pretending to have a tea party or pretending to be in a classroom.

Difference Between Symbolic Play and Pretend Play

As mentioned above, pretend play or symbolic play has many benefits, so let’s now look at some of these benefits.

Importance of Symbolic Play or Pretend Play

Learning Social and Emotional Skills

When a child engages in pretend play, that child has a chance to understand relationships between people and build social skills. When children engage in role-playing as they grow older, they assign roles to others, take turns, and communicate with others. This play also encourages children to work out social issues and deal with different emotions while playing with others around them.

Developing Language Skills

We use the word symbolic play as a synonym for pretend play because this type of play involves symbols and symbolic thought (where one object stands for another). Symbolic thought is essential for language acquisition since words are symbols that stand for our thoughts and ideas.

Difference Between Symbolic Play and Pretend Play_Figure 3

Improving Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills

Imitating various people and acting out different scenes (ex: doctor’s office, carpenter shop, restaurant, etc.) allow children to encounter various problems. For instance, two children wanting to play the same role or finding the right material to build a door to a playhouse, etc.  

Difference Between Symbolic Play and Pretend Play

Symbolic play and pretend play are two names for the same type of play: children using objects and actions to represent other objects and actions as play. We use the word symbolic play because children are actually using symbols when they use one object to represent another. The term pretend play refers to the nature of their play – pretending to use a real object or pretending to be someone else. However, it’s important to note that there is no difference between symbolic play and pretend play.

Conclusion

There is no difference between symbolic play and pretend play. Pretend play is simply another name for symbolic play.  Both these terms refer to a child’s ability to use objects and actions to represent other objects, actions as play. For example, holding a block of wood as a telephone and talking into it or getting into a box and driving like a car.

Reference:

1.“How and Why to Encourage Pretend Play.” The Land of Make Believe, Available here.
2. “Symbolic Play.” Play and Playground Encyclopedia, Picture Perfect Playgrounds, Inc., Available here.
3. “The Importance of Pretend Play.” Scholastic, Available here.
4. “Why Symbolic and Pretend Play Is Important in a Child’s Cognitive Development.” PlayWorks Therapy Inc., 13 Jan. 2016, Available here.

Image Courtesy:

1. “559378” (CC0) via Pixabay
2. “2737809” (CC0) via Pixabay
3. “2166079” (CC0) via Pixabay

About the Author: Hasa

Hasa has a BA degree in English, French and Translation studies. She is currently reading for a Masters degree in English. Her areas of interests include literature, language, linguistics and also food.

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