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Children demonstrate the understanding of concepts, experiences, and ideas through symbolic representation.

Children learn about objects, actions, and people through observations, interaction, and exploration. They take information in through all of their senses to build a basic understanding of the world around them.

By eight months of age, children develop object permanence—they know that objects and people continue to exist even though the objects and people can no longer be seen or heard. This realization is why children cry when their caregiver leaves the room, or why they look under a blanket to uncover a toy. Children need object permanence in order to develop symbolic thought.

As they grow, children continue to explore their environment and play with objects the way they are intended to be used. Children will push a toy car around the room, or hold a toy phone up to their ear. Language development is closely related to this cognitive skill, as children use words to represent meaningful people and objects in their lives, for example, “baba” for bottle, or “dahee” for the family dog.

True symbolic thought emerges around 18 months of age with children’s ability to think in images and symbols.1 Children represent concrete objects by using images, words, gestures, or play. For example, children may use a wooden block as a phone during play. Or, they may pretend to cook food in the toy kitchen. Play becomes increasingly symbolic, as children use pretend play to make sense of the world. By 36 months, children can use symbolic play to problem-solve, sort out feelings, and explore roles and relationships.

Birth to 9 months

Children use observation, exploration, and social interaction to learn about objects, actions, and people.

Indicators for children include:

  • Uses senses to explore objects, e.g., observes, mouths, touches
  • Interacts with caregiver(s) and the environment
  • Physically manipulates objects, e.g., twists and turns toys, drops items
  • Combines objects in play
  • Locates an object that has been partially hidden

Strategies for interaction

  • Create an inviting environment for the child to explore; change materials and toys in the child’s environment on a regular basis
  • Interact and socially engage the child often throughout the day, e.g., use diapering and feeding times to playfully communicate with the child
  • Follow the child’s lead during play
  • Provide toys and experiences that have a variety of colors, textures, sounds, and smells

7 months to 18 months

Children use social interaction to continue to gather meaning from objects, actions, and people. Children move from exploring objects to learning how to play with objects in ways they are intended to be used. Toward the end of this age period, children begin to use one object to represent another object.

Indicators for children include:

  • Demonstrates object permanence, e.g., realizes objects and people still exist, even when they are not physically visible
  • Imitates adult’s actions, e.g., bangs a drum with a rattle, after observing an adult complete the action
  • Engages in simple pretend play, e.g., pretends to drink tea from a pretend tea cup, pretends to feed baby doll with toy bottle, uses a toy block as a phone, pretends to talk to mama
  • Recognizes familiar people and/or objects in photographs

Strategies for interaction

  • Respond enthusiastically when the child demonstrates new uses for objects he or she has discovered
  • Play with the child often; follow his or her lead
  • Imitate the child during play, e.g., hold up a pretend phone to ear
  • Name objects and people found in the child’s environment

16 months to 24 months

Children demonstrate the beginning of symbolic thinking as they start to label objects in everyday life. Children also use more complex social interactions and engage in imaginary play to make sense of the world around them.

Indicators for children include:

  • Pretends one object is really another by using substitution, e.g., a napkin for a baby’s diaper
  • Finds objects after they are hidden in close proximity
  • Engages in pretend play with familiar objects and experiences, e.g., places baby doll in stroller and pushes the stroller
  • Identifies or names his or her drawings, e.g., points to scribble and says, “mama and dada”
  • Communicates labels to familiar objects and/or people, e.g., says “dog” when seeing four-legged animals

Strategies for interaction

  • Engage and play with the child; follow the child’s lead
  • Narrate the child’s play, e.g., “Are you taking the baby for a walk to the store?”
  • Repeat words that child is attempting to attach meaning to, e.g., say, “yes, baby,” as the child points to a picture of a baby
  • Encourage and praise the child as he or she shares accomplishments

21 months to 36 months

Children use their ability to label and think symbolically to engage in increasingly complex social interactions, exploration, and play. Children use these skills to recreate experiences, problem-solve, and explore relationships and roles.

Indicators for children include:

  • Assigns roles to peers while engaged in imaginary play
  • Builds in sequencing while engaged in play, e.g., beginning, middle, and end
  • Communicates descriptors of people or objects that are not present, e.g., says “My mommy has blue eyes”
  • Projects feelings and words onto stuffed animals, e.g., “The horse is sad”
  • Takes on different adult roles during play and uses appropriate mannerisms, e.g., pretends to be the teacher and speaks in a more adult-like voice, while pretending to read a book to students

Strategies for interaction

  • Interact with the child during pretend play and follow his or her lead
  • Ask open-ended questions while playing with the child in order to expand on thoughts and language
  • Continue to label and narrate actions, objects, and experiences for the child
  • Encourage the child to use objects in creative ways to help problem-solve, e.g., using a blanket as an apron, when aprons are all being used by other children

Real World Story

Jocelyn, 34 months old, is playing with a doll house. Her caregiver, Lauren, sits near her but does not engage with her. Jocelyn picks up a doll and moves her around in the play kitchen. She says, “Come eat!” Jocelyn puts down the doll, and grabs a smaller doll from the upstairs part of the dollhouse. She moves the doll into the kitchen and says, “Here, Mommy.” Jocelyn picks up the “Mommy” doll and places them both on the table. She turns toward Lauren, and hands her a third doll. Jocelyn points to that doll and says, “Daddy.” Lauren says, “Do you want me to be the Daddy?” Jocelyn nods her head and turns her attention back to the doll house.

She points to the play living room and says, “Daddy sit.” Lauren places the doll on the miniature couch. Jocelyn grabs both her dolls and places them next to the “Daddy” doll. She then leaves the dollhouse and walks over to the table right next to the dollhouse where there is a play cash register. She presses a few buttons, and then it opens. Jocelyn takes out a few pretend bills and hands one to Lauren. Lauren says, “Thank you! I am going to buy a piece of fruit.” Jocelyn bends down, and reaches toward the basket that is under the table. She picks out a pretend apple and hands it to Lauren. She then takes the bill out of Lauren’s hand and puts it back into the register.

Discover how this Real World Story is related to:

THIS EXAMPLE HIGHLIGHTS Jocelyn’s developing cognitive skills. Jocelyn first uses the dolls as a representation of her family and has them take on specific roles. She is able to demonstrate delayed imitation and symbolic thought by performing two sequences that she is familiar with: dinner and sitting together as a family. She uses language to indicate what is being represented and to engage her caregiver in play, when she hands Lauren the “Daddy” doll and again when she hands Lauren the pretend bills. Jocelyn also demonstrates her memory skills as she bends down automatically to get Lauren a piece of pretend fruit without having to look around. Finally, Jocelyn shows a basic understanding of quantity as she hands Lauren one piece of fruit, after Lauren communicates that is what she wants.


  1. Bjorklund, D. F. (2000). Children’s Thinking: Developmental Function and Individual Differences. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Reviewed: 2012