Imitation and Symbolic Representation

Critical skills preschoolers can use to express themselves and engage in pretend play

Young boy and teacher pretending to use fake binoculars

At A Glance

Preschoolers are learning a lot about the world around them. They do this by observing and, later, imitating our actions, gestures, sounds, and words. Preschoolers are also beginning to understand that symbols hold meaning and represent ideas. While imitation and symbolic representation are slightly different, we can support them together because they share a key component: pretend play! Pretend play provides lots of opportunities for imitation (such as playing “house” or “school”) and symbolic thought (like using pretend food). Join in the play and follow children’s lead as they think symbolically about the world around them!

What It Looks Like

A quick glance at ways you can support preschoolers' imitation and symbolic representation

Participate in Play

Join in and encourage children as they try out pretend play roles. Notice how this educator is a customer and supports the children’s roles of chef, waiter, and guest.

Model and Narrate Pretend Play

Provide examples and offer ideas for how to take on a variety of roles. Notice how this educator guides the child to share ways to care for a baby.

Encourage Use of Props

Use objects that are exact replicas to get children involved in pretend play. Describe and demonstrate what objects are and can do, like this educator does.


Be a Friend

Written and illustrated by Salina Yoon, this book tells the experience of a boy who connects to the world and others by showing, instead of speaking.

Be a Friend Book Cover
Bedtime for Sweet Creatures Cover


Bedtime for Sweet Creatures

Written by Nikki Grimes and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, this book is about a child who goes through the same emotions and actions as different animals preparing for sleep.


Processing Grief Through Play

Children often process emotions through play. This article from Edutopia discusses ways adults can “set the stage” for play that helps children work through grief and loss.


Connecting Home 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 personal and home experiences in mind.


Responsive Play Interactions

Play has incredible benefits for young children with autism or other disabilities. This article from Vanderbilt University shares five strategies you can use to support responsive play interactions.

Activity Cards for Preschool Classrooms

Part of the STREAMin3 curriculum, these activity cards provide simple and fun ways to support children's imitation and symbolic representation skills
It Looks Like Icon
Name It

It Looks Like…

Take time to look up at the clouds and name objects or shapes they look like.

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Act it Out

Let's Pretend

Encourage children to move their bodies as they pretend to be different animals or objects.

Cover image for What Can it Be? Activity Card
Rename it

What Can it Be?

Get children to think outside the box and come up with new ways to use familiar objects.

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Look for It

Symbol Sightings

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


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