Play is what he does. He enjoys it. He likes finding out new things, discovering how things move, what they feel like, how they smell and sound. The more he enjoys his activities, the better he learns.
Through his play,from investigating by putting objects in his mouth, through to pretending to give his teddy a drink, he learns the role that toys, pictures, gestures and words have in helping him communicate.
When your toddler offers you a cup of pretend tea from a miniature cup, and you pretend to drink it, nobody’s fooled. He knows as well as you do there is no 'real' tea in the cup. What's more, he knows you know.
The toy cup represents a real cup of tea, and the situation represents a real-life action he knows well. It represents, or symbolises, one person giving a cup of tea to another.
A picture of a cup, the word 'cup' and a hand sign for 'cup' are all symbols that stands for a real cup, just as his toy cup does.
Your baby and toddler gradually, over many months, learns to develop his understanding of symbols. He begins with real objects. He uses his five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, to learn everything he can about these.
Next, he recognises the relationship between a toy and the real thing, before he learns how a picture or a physical sign, such as waving bye-bye, can represent an object or action.
Finally, he learns the words: the labels that also symbolise the real object. When he reaches school age, he moves on to recognising letters and numbers, and how they symbolise less concrete, more abstract ideas. Pretend play is part of the process.
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