Effective Practice Guides

Imitation and Symbolic Representation and Play: Do


Try the following practices with infants and toddlers. Find out how home visitors can put these practices to work with families

Infants and Toddlers1

  • During daily routines, such as feeding and diapering, respond to infants’ sounds, gestures, and facial expressions as if having a conversation.
  • Use simple games that promote imitation, like peek-a-boo and “So Big!”
    • To play “So Big!” ask, “How big is (child’s name)?” Wait a moment and then exclaim, “So big,” while raising and holding both arms up. Help the child raise her arms if she does not imitate the arm motion on her own.
  • Support toddlers as they act out familiar scenarios and take on pretend roles (e.g., parenting a baby doll or going to work or school). Join in the pretend play without taking it over and model additional ways to interact with the objects.
  • As toddlers progress in their development, encourage the use of one object to stand for another (e.g., a small block as a telephone). You can also introduce and model using natural, outdoor items such as twigs, leaves, seed pods, and small tree cookies (cross sections of branches that show growth rings). Make sure to supervise children when they play with these items.2
  • Add to imaginary scenarios by introducing new props, asking open-ended questions about what will happen next, inviting peers to join in, suggesting additional pretend play roles, and encouraging the use of language.

Home Visitors

Home visitors can support parents in identifying, adapting, and trying the practices listed above during home visits and group socializations. Here are more ideas.

  • Comment when you see parents engaging in back-and-forth interactions with their infant. Point out what they do as well as what their infant does in response. Model back-and-forth interactions with the infant, as needed.
  • Brainstorm with parents what materials and household items might be safe and appropriate for their child to use in pretend play. Talk about indoor and outdoor spaces where pretend play can take place.
    • As needed, model engaging in pretend play with a child. For example, show how to use safe, unbreakable kitchen items to cook and eat pretend food. Talk about what’s being made, serve it, and pronounce it “delicious.”
  • Assure parents that pretend play does not always require the use of toys and objects. Talk with them about following their child’s lead in pretend play scenarios such as imitating different animals and how they sound and move, throwing and catching an invisible ball, and routines such as napping and waking up.3

1Allyson Dean, Sarah, LeMoine, and Maria Mayoral, ZERO TO THREE Critical Competencies for Infant-Toddler Educators (Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE, 2016), 50, C-3. Critical Competencies for Infant-Toddler Educators, C-3.

2Early Head Start National Resource Center (EHS NRC), Technical Assistance Paper 14: Supporting Outdoor Play and Explorations for Infants and Toddlers (Washington, DC: HHS, ACF, OHS, 2013), 9, https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/learning-environments/article/supporting-outdoor-play-exploration-infants-toddlers.

3Sally Atkins-Burnett, et.al., Measuring the Quality of Caregiver-Child Interactions with Infants and Toddlers: The Q-CCIIT Observer Certification Training User’s Guide (Washington, DC: Mathematica Policy Research, 2016), 48, D.2.

Topic:School Readiness

Resource Type: Article

Last Updated: June 5, 2018