Symbolic Thought in Children: 6 Exercises

April 5, 2019
Symbolic thought is one of the basic abilities needed for building your child's intellect. Learn how to encourage and develop symbolic thought in your children!

Developing symbolic thought is essential for children to be able to understand basic abstract concepts. These concepts are acquired via language.

Children start to express themselves using symbolic ideas beginning at about 18 months old. In this regard, it’s known that the clearest evidence of mental representations is through language.

“Broadly speaking, it can therefore be said that in the course of mental development, imitative accommodation and ludic assimilation, from being differentiated, gradually become more and more closely coordinated. At the sensory-motor level they separate; in symbolic play, earlier imitative images provide the ‘signifiers’ and ludic assimilation provides the significations.”

–Jean Piaget–

As Piaget expresses above, a child’s growth isn’t measured only in physical characteristics. The most complex processes to monitor are the child’s mental and sensory developments.

Nonetheless, knowing the key steps of cognitive development will make it easier to support your children. You’ll be able to help them appropriately at each stage of their cognitive development.

The basis of symbolic thought in children

It will be evident that children have come to develop symbolic thought when they can represent people, things, and situations that aren’t present in their immediate surroundings.

In addition, children will evoke symbols or internal images to represent their reality. This action shows that they’re perceiving reality by way of abstract concepts.

How to identify symbolic thought in play and in communication?

When children play with a piece of wood and imagine it as a sword, they’re demonstrating the capacity to make abstract assumptions about real objects. As a result, when children imagine they’re a superhero or a genius doctor, they’re thinking by way of symbols.

Now, when children use gestures and sounds to communicate and name things, they’re giving meaning to their reality. Later, as children grow older and gain the ability to write and draw, they begin to use signs to delimit the world of concepts.

Symbolic Thought in Children: 6 Exercises

How to develop symbolic thought in children?

1. Role playing games

Role play with your children by suggesting that they’re the parents, and you’re the child. Propose fun scenarios and begin to see how your children imitate the behavior they want to see in you.

They’ll begin to let their imagination fly and consequently create fantastical stories that will surprise you as a result. Use costumes, masks, and objects to make the game more entertaining.

2. Performing chores

In this type of game, you’re incorporating the ludic part of thought as the child helps to carry out simple household tasks.

Invent games, for example, where children can pretend they’re chefs and help you prepare a meal. First, give them the amounts of the ingredients and ask them to count and name them.

This way, not only will you help develop their symbolic thought, but they’ll also become aware they should take part in the household chores.

3. Simple board games

Snakes and ladders, Parcheesi, or Monopoly are games that help children grasp numerical concepts. The identification of signs, icons, and illustrations is also a big step in the construction of symbols.

4. Puzzles and construction blocks

Representing objects by way of blocks or constructing something from small pieces is elaborating on mental images also requires mental images.

Moreover, the act of imitating figures that aren’t present in their immediate reality is evoking the abstract concepts of symbolic thought.

5. “I spy”

This game is ideal for moments of free time with young children, either at home or outdoors. It consists of you formulating a simple descriptive question or statement, for example: “I spy something red.”

Your child should indicate where there is an object with those characteristics. In this way, in addition to practicing their perception of objects and backgrounds, you’ll also stimulate their cognitive abilities.

Symbolic Thought in Children: 6 Exercises

6. Stories, riddles, and guessing games

Word games are great for children when it comes to the development of symbolic thought. Words make children think in images, in objects, and in stories.

Clearly, when children let their imagination go wild, they go to places they create themselves. They explore places that personify and represent their vision of reality. Subsequently, word games can motivate your child towards reading and writing.

In conclusion, when you start to use these simple games in the everyday life of your family, you’ll notice big jumps forward. Your children will develop various dimensions simultaneously and their knowledge and communication skills will grow.

Know that when you work on their linguistic development it will have an effect at the cognitive level and vice-versa. The mind of your child is a wondrous mechanism that reacts to stimuli in diverse ways.

  • Piaget, J. (2013). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. Routledge.
  • Piaget, Jean. (1996). Psychology of Intelligence. New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams, and Company.