“Expressive symbolic play may fill a heuristic role in the small child’s attempt to assimilate events and feelings for which he does not yet have concepts or words.” ~ William M Schafer p.17
Some years ago now, William M Schafer wrote an article on the communicative (?) and meaning-making purpose(s) of symbolic play in children under 2 years of age. In spite of a great deal of supposition on the part of the adults in terms of what was going on inside the child’s mind, the write-up is interesting. I particularly enjoyed the introductory paragraph:
“The potential function of imaginative play in development has been described by a number of authors over the last several decades. Piaget (1951), Vygotsky (1967), and Werner and Kaplan (1 963) have each emphasized the role of play in extending the scope of intelligent activity from the here-and-now of sensorimotor cognition to the wider range of representational, figurative and symbolic meanings. (The term symbolic will be used in the narrower, Piagetian sense of a signifier which has a private rather than a consensual meaning.) Although each of these authors approaches the topic from a different perspective, they seem to concur that the small child who wears a bowl upon his head like a cap is demonstrating his nascent ability to turn one object (bowl) into a flexible signifier of another, absent object (hat). This broadly conceived representational capacity is in turn thought to be an important factor in the development of other, more sophisticated representational systems, such as language.” (p.17)
Although the interpretations of child behaviors were too far extrapolated from the observable for me (is this a 70s thing?), I did also find Schafer’s conclusion interesting. I particularly like the emphasis on the social aspect.
“As the meaning of the play grows clearer-to the parent and to the child himself-an internal understanding can be established which, although colored by previous idiosyncratic assimilations, is capable of being expressed through a more flexible system of consensually defined signifiers, such as language.
Since this process of expressing something in order to discover what it is takes place within an interpersonal context, the clarification which results often appears to be the mutual product of both the child’s and the parent’s efforts to comprehend. Both partners appear to engage in a similar process: Beginning at a point where neither understands precisely what it is that is being expressed, both parties make use of the unstructured interaction of imaginative play to assimilate one another’s actions with their own internal imagery, to provide each other with further symbolizers to return and to maintain the symbolic dialogue until a shared conceptual integration has been achieved.
[…] Each successive step in the process draws the child that much further into a world of social meaning which can be shared with virtually all other members of the human family.” (p.26)
Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) William M Schafer (1979) Expressive symbolism in spontaneous play before two years of age. New Directions for Child Development 3, pp.17-27