Symbolic Play Development: Themes


By: Stephanie Boron, M.S., CCC-SLP

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

-Mr. Rogers


For children, development of play goes hand in hand with development across many other areas, including language, motor skills, and social-emotional skills. Symbolic play (i.e., pretend play — use of objects, actions, or ideas to symbolize/represent another object, action, or idea) is an important step, allowing children to become more abstract thinkers, more robust problem solvers, and more flexible and collaborative play partners.

This post is the first in a series that will be devoted to explaining the development of symbolic play. Read on to learn more about the development of symbolic play themes, as well as some ideas for play within each developmental range.

As a speech and language pathologist, I work with children and families every day to better understand symbolic play skills. The resource I have found to be the most helpful is the Concise Symbolic Play Scale, which was put together by Carol Westby, Ph.D., CCC-SLP. The information presented here is based upon this play scale.

As we look at the developmental ages listed below, it’s important to remember that kids move through this scale at their own speed. Some kids may have pretend play skills that are higher or lower on this scale as compared to their actual age. This tool is a useful starting point for figuring out where a child is right now, and systematically supporting their play in order to help them continue to develop more complex play down the road.

Themes are the content and ideas within a child’s play. Symbolic play themes develop as follows:

  • 17-19 months: Events that have been personally experienced and that happen frequently
    • Theme Ideas:
      • Goodnight/Good Morning Play (Sleeping Play)
        • Try pretending to go to sleep on the floor with your child. Wait until your child playfully wakes you up, then repeat.
        • Playfully pretend to tuck your child into “bed” (a pillow and blanket on the floor), then warmly say, “Goodnight.” Wait until they bounce up, pretending to wake up and greet them with a warm, “Good morning!”
      • Food/Eating Play
        • Utilize pretend food to “cook” your child a meal. It can be a silly meal or a meal they would actually enjoy! Model pretending to eat the food if this is a new idea for your child.
  • 19 months – 2 1/2 years: Caregiver activities  — events that your child observes his or her caregiver doing frequently (related to the play in the first phase, but the child is in the caregiver roll).
    • Theme Ideas:
      • Goodnight/ Good Morning Play (Sleeping Play)
        • Help your child to put a doll or favorite stuffed animal to bed.
      • Food/Eating Play
        • Your child can cook pretend food for you this time!
        • Your child can cook pretend food and feed it to a doll or favorite stuffed animal.
      • Bath Time Play
        • Your child can pretend to bathe a doll or other toy. Get creative! You can even used preferred toys such as cars or trains.
          • If the toy is water resistant, consider using actual water in a bin, a spray bottle with water, shaving cream, bubbles, or other sensory items to create a more robust experience of this play scheme.
  • 2 1/2- 3 years: Events that have been personally experienced, but that happen less frequently. These themes are sometimes related to emotion.
    • Theme Ideas:
      • Doctor Play
        • Use a doctor set to play checkup on you, your child, or a doll.
        • Use masking tape or real bandaids to give dolls bandaids after they fall down or somehow get a boo-boo.
      • Airplane ride
        • Use toy airplanes to play out someone taking a plane ride.
  • 3-5 years: Events the child has seen or read about but not personally experienced.
    • Theme Ideas:
      • Fireman Play
        • Build a tower out of blocks. Put a red block at the top and say that there’s a fire. Use a firetruck toy, blue block (for water), or actual spray bottle with water to “put out” the fire. Remove the red block and use a relieved tone to match the resolution of the play theme.
        • Pretend different areas are on fire and that you and your child are the firemen. Run or ride (on a bike, ride-on toy car, etc.) from place to place and pretend to spray the fire (either with invisible hoses or with something more tangible like a pool noodle).
      • Police Play
        • Pretend that you and your child are on the good guy team (the police team), and that a stuffed animal is a bad guy. Pretend to catch him and put him in jail (or time out).
          • It’s important to be on the same team as your child rather than opposing teams. This feels safer and more connected for children who are just starting to play with good guy/bad guy themes.
          • Consider being silly about the jail cell. You can pretend to cover it in sticky bubble gum so the bad guy will get stuck if he tries to climb out, with stinky socks so the bad guy will smell a yucky smell if he tries to climb out, etc. Next, move the stuffed animal as if it’s trying to get out and match the reaction to the scene you set up with your child.
  • 5-6 years: Highly imaginative themes
    • Theme Ideas:
      • Follow your child’s lead and interests here. You can get creative and children are often able to use their imaginations to set the scene rather than needing more realistic props (more on this in a future blog post). Play around with themes like astronaut, prince/princess and dragon, etc.

Symbolic play development can vary from child to child, so don’t hesitate to talk with your child’s therapy team about their symbolic development. If you have any questions, you can also reach out to me at

Westby, C.E. (2000). A scale for assessing development of children’s play. In K. Gitlin-Weiner, A. Sandgund, & C. Schaefer (Eds.), Play diagnosis and assessment (pp. 15-57) New York: Wiley.


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