The Importance of Symbolic Function in Children

The process of developing symbolic function allows children to learn and socialize. It also encourages children's emotional development as well as their ability to grow.
The Importance of Symbolic Function in Children

Last update: 05 November, 2019

Developing symbolic function is very important for young children, as it enhances their emotional and cognitive development. The ability to create stories and store mental images in their minds can help them face their fears and help them socialize.

Kids make things up – they socialize, play and learn through stories. You can also see it through the drawings or the games they play, which represent a reality that comes from imitation and their imagination.

For little ones, giants, dolls and fairies can be the protagonists of these stories. Most of the time, these characters are based on their parents, siblings, other family members, and friends.

The Importance of Symbolic Function in Children

When does the symbolic function start?

Symbolic function starts to develop at around 18 months of age. Children think in patterns, symbols, pictures, gestures, games or words. Then, once they experience real stimuli that give them different contexts, this is when symbolic play starts.

Until then, they had just experienced imitation. Thereafter, children can begin to imitate behaviors or adapt things to what they need. Language is another tool that children begin to use, as they start storing more information in their minds.

Symbolic function helps children create ways to express themselves. Most of the time, this is the basis to solve conflicts in the adult world.

How children relate to their environment

The ability to create and manage symbolic representation isn’t something that children are born with. It’s built through their interactions with their environment and the care that they receive.

Together with how you interact with your children, the symbolic function will give meaning to their existence. Their genetic background alone doesn’t guarantee how they develop their symbolic play.

The importance of the symbolic function in children has to do with how their parents and the rest of the family see them. Thus, children start becoming part of their family group and society, and they’re able to understand and respect beliefs and traditions.

The Importance of Symbolic Function in Children

Parents’ role in symbolic function in children

Children need to communicate and their parents are the first to listen and interpret their needs. This is the key that opens their symbolic world. This transforms their gestures or yelling into emotional demands. This helps them begin to communicate and relate to their mother, for the most part.

Over time, this communication allows children to understand how to express their wellbeing. It starts coming up and lets them be able to understand being away from their parents.

Playing hide and seek is a representation of that separation that helps them differentiate real life from fantasy. Role-playing, drawing and games all help children gain that symbolic function that lets them develop their imagination to deal with many real-life situations.

Symbolic play

Children tend to play different roles as part of their symbolic function. In their games, they can be any character, even play real-life people. These mental games help improve their language and favor socialization while boosting their emotional and motor development. Symbolic play can also help children adapt to their environment.

Before symbolic play comes shared games. This starts with the mother and then involves other people. As of 18 months of age, children start using symbolism which, over time, becomes more complex. At first, they can play alone or with friends. The latter influences their social skills.

The Importance of Symbolic Function in Children

The advantages of symbolic play in children

Through the symbolic function in games that children play, adults can detect internal struggles in their children. If you’re aware of how they play out their fears, then it will be easier to help them. Also, by observing other people’s symbolic play, children get to know their environment more because, in order to imitate them, they need to understand how they act.

Children learn as they play. Creativity, curiosity, and independence are enhanced when the symbolic function is stimulated in children. This can also prepare them to follow rules.


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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.