I find that parents aren’t always sure how to utilize symbolic play. You may question how much information to give, what scenarios will actually help them, or you may feel awkward playing in general. You can use symbolic play for any situation. Here are some tips.
All types of ‘attachment play’ (part of Aware Parenting) can help children process their experiences, address challenging behaviors, and supercharge connection.
Symbolic play is a type of attachment play. It involves playing through a scenario that will happen, or already happened, with dolls, stuffed animals, props, and/or yourselves.
Attachment Play really takes hold starting around age 2, but you can absolutely still do it effectively with babies and younger toddlers. Modify as it makes sense to you, and remember that toddlers often play beside, not directly with.
Symbolic play, specifically
During symbolic play, explain whatever’s honestly happening. For example, play through a visit to the dentist. Related to the pandemic, enact a scenario of someone getting sick, going to the doctor, being quarantined, and everyone in lockdown.
The arrival of a new baby sibling? Don’t skip the symbolic play, it will really help!
Or whatever your child says s/he’s afraid of–play through that. Go gently. Invite the scenario, and then wait to see how your child responds. It’s an initiated dialogue through play and can give you insight about what’s going on in your child’s mind.
Outcomes of symbolic play
We find that addressing these scenarios through play doesn’t make things worse or make them anxious–we find it actually helps them understand and relieve stress. Usually they’re already picking up on what’s going on anyway, and possibly feeling worried because they don’t understand. Symbolic play helps!
It’s not about high level analyzing, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to work through situations with your child authentically. Sometimes it’s more accessible for them if you play through a scene with dolls/stuffed animals first, before you role play the characters yourselves, but you can feel that out with your child.
Staying honest and authentic will help build communication and understanding!