Imaginative play: Play and Language


Imaginative Play

boy in blue long sleeve shirt standing beside brown wooden table

Why is imaginative play important?

Imaginative play, or ‘symbolic’ play, is important because it suggests that the child understands that one object or picture can symbolise another, just as a word represents an object.  During imaginative play the child is beginning to understand the idea of symbols, which eventually leads to being able to think in abstract ways.  In time, the child will be able to use words and marks or drawings to express ideas and predict or solve problems. When a child can play appropriately with teddies, dolls and large doll sized toys it indicates that they are ready to cope with symbolic information.   They are also ready for language because language depends on words which are the ultimate, abstract form of symbols.

The developmental sequence of play

Large doll and teddy play

  • Involve a dolly or teddy in everyday situation and provide appropriate matching objects so, for example, the child can feed teddy as he is being fed, the child can wash teddy’s face when his face is washed etc.
  • If necessary, show the child how to use the objects on teddy.
  • Gradually provide these opportunities at other times i.e. not in the real situation.

Miniature or small world play

  • To encourage the understanding of miniatures, play with the real object and then the miniature, e.g. the child pretends to drink from a large cup then hand the child a miniature cup. You may need to model drinking from the miniature.
  • Show the child how to relate these miniature objects to dolls and teddies.
  • With older children at this level, play matching games, matching real sized and miniature objects.

Play with pictures

  • If pictures appear to mean little to the child, use photos. Match objects to photos initially in real situations. Children usually respond to coloured pictures first but the child’s visual perception skills should be considered.
  • Move onto the use of inset puzzles and jigsaws.

To learn more about levels of play and language use the link in the sidebar.

Top Tip

Playing with your child at each developmental stage of play is essential. You will be the inner voice of the child as you role play with them at each stage of the imaginative play. When talking through what you are doing during play you will naturally be using 'doing words' (verbs) in your speech such as; 'teddy is drinking his drink', 'I am washing baby' these words are really important for children to learn because they connect words together in a sentence. You can also use the 'doing words' when commenting on your child's play for example 'Millie is running up the garden'.
Resource to show the relationship between play and language
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Age Groups

Find more games, resources, tips and links for your child's age group here.

Games & Resources

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Frequently Asked Questions

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