Imitation and Symbolic Representation

Infants and toddlers are just beginning to develop and use these important skills

Toddler playing with pretend knife and fake food

At A Glance

Young children learn about imitation and symbols through their interactions with adults and the world around them. First, they carefully observe your actions, such as reading a book. Then they begin imitating, by babbling or holding the book and turning the page, for example. Through these interactions, young children learn that pictures, words, and objects symbolize things in the real world. We can support young children’s development of imitation and symbolic representation by modeling and providing lots of opportunities to engage in early pretend play.

What It Looks Like

A quick glance at ways you can help infants and toddlers develop imitation and symbolic representation skills

Participate in Play

Join in the play as children try out pretend roles. Notice how this educator follows the child’s lead as they pretend the shovel is their birthday cake.

Model Pretend Play

Provide examples for how to participate in pretend play. Notice how this educator models pretend actions with puppets, sounds, and gestures, such as imitating buzzing bees with hands.

Encourage Use of Props

Use objects that are replicas to get children involved in pretend play. Describe what children are saying and doing with these props to foster their play.


Nosotros Means Us

Written and illustrated by Paloma Valdivia, this story features a mother and child who imagine transforming into different versions of themselves over time. 

Nostros Means Us Book Cover
Shadow Book Cover



Written and illustrated by Suzy Lee, Shadow is a nearly wordless story showing the worlds we can create with just our imagination.


Coping Through Play

This guide from The LEGO Foundation explores strategies for supporting children as they process emotions and events through pretend play.


Connecting Experiences with Play

This video from the Center for Early Childhood Education (CECE) at Eastern Connecticut State University shares strategies for planning and supporting dramatic play with children’s home lives in mind.


Culturally Rich Dramatic Play

This article from NAEYC provides ways to enhance children’s play with authentic, culturally relevant experiences.

Activity Cards for Infant and Toddler Classrooms

Part of the STREAMin3 curriculum, these activity cards provide simple and fun ways to promote imitation and symbolic representation skills
Image for Infant/Toddler Feeding Friends Activity Card
Be the Cook

Feeding Friends

Have fun pretending to cook and serve friends or hungry stuffed animals.

Image for Infant/Toddler Shadow Shows Activity Card
Play with light

Shadow Shows

Encourage children to shape and move their bodies into fun shadows.

Hunt for symbols

Symbol Sightings

Go on a symbols hunt by looking for signs or logos with shapes and letters.

Image for Infant/Toddler What Can You Make Activity Card
Create and Play

What Can You Make?

Get creative by shaping play-dough into different objects and shapes.


Get Our Resource Guide

Includes questions and activities to guide your use of the videos, book suggestions, and activity cards featured for each of the Core Skills