Effective Practice Guides

Imitation and Symbolic Representation and Play: Know

Goals for Infants and Toddlers

  • IT-C 11. Child observes and imitates sounds, words, gestures, actions, and behaviors.
  • IT-C 12. Child uses objects or symbols to represent something else.
  • IT-C 13. Child uses pretend play to increase understanding of culture, environment, and experiences.

Teaching Practices


Copy infants’ sounds, gestures, facial expressions, and actions to promote emerging imitation play behaviors.
While changing 4-month-old Lori’s wet diaper and putting on her clean clothes, Mr. Angel repeats Lori’s gurgles. When she gurgles, he gurgles back and adds a few words. “I hear you, Ms. Lori. You have a lot to say.” When Lori smiles at him, he smiles back saying, “I like being with you, too.” 

Join in pretend play with toddlers and model playful and social behaviors. Use your imagination and follow children’s lead.
Superhero capes are very popular among the toddlers in Ms. Harte’s family child care home. She made each child a simple cape and a larger one for herself. The only decoration is the first letter of the child’s name. When Ms. Harte joins the superheroes in play, she wears her cape and keeps the play focused on friends, family, and community members who help other people. While doing so, she watches and listens for where children might want to go next with the play scenario so she can help to extend their play.


Provide real-life and familiar items children can use in their play as-is or to represent something else.
In addition to sturdy manipulatives such as Duplos® and large pop-it beads, the toddler room teachers provide safe, non-commercial items children can use in their play. For example, there is a collection of clean, repurposed bottle caps of different sizes (all large enough so they are not a choking hazard). The children use them to make towers and other structures and as cups they pretend to drink from while playing.

Arrange the environment to create places where two to three children can play and pretend together.
The room used for the program’s group socialization sessions must be cleaned up between uses. Home visitor Ms. Lacy stores the toys and materials in plastic crates. When the toys are set up and the crates are empty, she uses the crates to make a pretend play “corral” on the carpet and lines it with pillows. She adds some books, dolls, stuffed animals, and hand puppets. A few toddlers at a time can climb into this comfy place; they like reading to the dolls and stuffed animals, and sometimes have the puppets “read” as well. Several of the families Ms. Lacy works with also use crates to create small play areas in in their homes.


Connect a child’s imaginary play to a favorite book or story.
Ms. Harris is helping Dion, 20 months, feed a stuffed rabbit. She says, “This bunny looks like the bunny in Goodnight Moon. After you’re done feeding him, you can put him to bed.” Dion says, “Nocho, nocho, conejo.”

Use simple symbolic play “skits” (e.g., simple back-and-forth rhymes and poems) with an infant during routines such as diapering and bottle feeding. 
Ms. Pierce has finished feeding 6-month-old Raoul his bottle. Next, they play a game of “This little piggy/Este pequeño chanchito.” Ms. Pierce removes Raoul’s socks and touches each toe while saying the rhyme. Raoul smiles and gurgles. When the rhyme is done, she puts Raoul’s socks back on, picks him up, and gently puts him on the floor for tummy time.

Topic:School Readiness

Resource Type: Article

Last Updated: June 5, 2018