17/02/2016 12:14 GMT | Updated 17/02/2017 05:12 GMT

What Symbolic Play Can Teach Us About Our Children

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Play is very important in the life of a child, especially symbolic play, which is where children use their imaginations to create storylines and roles. When they pretend to be doctors, superheroes or daddies and mommies, they're engaged in symbolic play.

Today, we turn to digital games too quickly. We should allow space for children to play with actual three-dimensional toys or "transitional objects," a term coined by Winnicott to describe objects that could have a soothing effect on children. Such objects may serve as a bridge between the child's symbolic world and reality.

Any object or toy opens a field of possibilities. The child determines where the game starts and where it ends, its trajectory, and its rules. It is in this type of game, the symbolic one, where the child's individuality emerges. It is where the child's intentions to build or destroy emerge. Through the game, we can also discover the child's passions and wishes.

You could say that when the child plays games on a tablet or electronic device, he or she is also very present, but that presence doesn't allow the child to take initiative. The child usually has to follow very specific rules that he has not written. In general, children play those games without much spontaneity. They require repetition and do not inspire changes in the people who play them. Rather, they create a certain excitement and get people hooked. And the game may be interesting, but the problem, as is usually the case, is the sheer amount of time spent on one type of game or another.

Symbolic play can be done alone or with others. In general, children create a fictional story. We call it symbolic because it refers to another experience, another story, and it allows the child to retell it, changing settings and words. That is, changing the discourse. The way children change certain stories will reveal their individualism and desires. Such games are also capable of inspiring change in the child.

Often, children who are not accustomed to this type of game can show some resistance. That's why it's important for adults to create and maintain an environment that encourages symbolic play. At first, they may need to be more present, accompany them, help them, give them a few objects or toys, until they learn to "be alone in the presence of others," in Winnicott's words.

It's important for adults to create and maintain an environment that encourages symbolic play.

Opening up spaces and giving specific suggestions can help significantly. Practically speaking, that means dedicating a specific play area within common areas, and turning off the television. Parents should also be by their side for when they ask for help. They should dedicate time and let the children repeat the game. And that repetition can lead to qualitative changes.

It is in the context of symbolic play that children can go through substantial changes. But the way the children will deal with this exercise, as well as how much assistance they will require, will depend on their age and experiences. Children who are more dependent will require more assistance.

The game makes it possible for conflict to emerge. It's not that it provokes conflict, as some might argue, but it allows it to emerge. This allows for the exploration of different responses. It has been proven, for example, that if I were to write this article again, it would never come out the same way. This is due to the fact that we suppress different things at different times.

The same thing happens with play, which is characterized by chance, and where choice is left up to the player. It never comes out the same. And if it did, if a child responds to a scenario in the same way every time, we should try to find out if there's something going on with the child.

I will highlight primarily two functions that symbolic play may have: First, it may offer an escape, and a way to figure out the child's impulses. The second function is that it may allow the adult to understand and truly get to know their child. This would allow parents to better understand the child's suffering, blockages, behaviors and desires when he or she reaches adolescence.


Young Minds Matter is a new series meant to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the UK's mental health crisis among children. To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email

This post first appeared on HuffPost Spain. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.