We now know that babies are highly active even while they are still in their mother's womb: they listen, move about, turn around and react to signals and stimuli both inside and outside their environment. This type of "energy" (as it can be defined) persists and increases after birth, allowing newborns to adapt to the world in which they find themselves. Two factors stimulate and at the same time promote this energy: imitation and play, elements that allow children to acquire new knowledge, to experiment with it, and to learn increasingly complex patterns of movement.
A fundamental premise we ought to make, even if it seems obvious, is that your child will reproduce what is familiar to them: your movements and facial expressions, your behaviour and your language, so bear in mind that you are always being listened to and observed, even when they may seem distracted and/or too young. Remember that you, as their parents, are the first models they will look to for inspiration as they grow. Imitation and play go hand in hand, as one stimulates the other and vice-versa, so the family and social environment in which children find themselves is of great importance.
Imitation is an innate learning process and like all skills, it too follows a developmental trajectory in children, who start with very simple mechanisms and then gradually master other far more complex forms of imitation; during the first month of life, babies do not generally display any signs of imitation, but from around five weeks through to eight months, you may start to notice your child beginning to spontaneously repeat actions that they know well and see you perform (for example: you parents imitate your child's gurgles and they react by gurgling again). They might also imitate an action which they were not already performing at the moment of interaction with you, but which is very familiar to them.
Between 8 and 12 months of age, we often note imitative behaviour like opening and shutting the eyes or moving the mouth in a certain way, for example to give a kiss. A very important aspect therefore is represented by the fact that around this age children are able to learn new actions simply by observing them being performed a few times by those around them! Between 12 and 18 months, there is a gradual emergence of another key developmental stage: through patterns of imitative action they have already acquired, and others that they will learn little by little, children start to develop pretend play: they play with the objects available to them pretending for example that they are you, perhaps playing at feeding a dolly or, stimulated by the sight of a pillow, pretending to fall sleep. If you observe them carefully, you will see that your child will carry out a series of actions that can be easily linked back to things that you do or that they have seen done by other adults close to them: they will cradle a doll in a certain way, softly singing a lullaby that they have heard many times (at this age, their language is flourishing) or they might “examine” all their soft toys with a toy stethoscope.
From 18 months on, with the acquisition of symbolic function, namely the ability to use symbols in place of objects, imitation becomes increasingly refined, and children can even manage to mime the swaying movements of a tree, or certain objects in their home, using their body. Naturally, all this baggage of actions is channelled into play (the ultimate area of experience and learning for children) and is expressed through so-called imitation play.
Why is imitation play so important?
Imitative play represents a creative, original form of entertainment that allows children not only to have fun, but also to strengthen patterns of action and express a lot of their emotional experiences.
Children play at being someone else, so they may use pots and bowls as they make believe they are a chef, but they can also use objects in a symbolic way: thus, a colander becomes a hat and building blocks become a telephone. While playing, they talk to their toy animals, dolls or action figures; they may line up all their soft toys in a row and perhaps scold them and then start cuddling them, mimicking actions they have already seen or experienced and "re-enacting" them in their own way.
This type of play is extremely important because it stimulates creativity and allows children to "act out" life experiences, making them feel they are an active part of their own environment. In addition, it allows them to transfer their thoughts and feelings to an enjoyable, relaxed experience like play, which allows them to express themselves.
At some point, while you are watching your child play happily in the living room at home, you will notice actions that you have never seen them perform before: this is what is called deferred imitation, which denotes children’s remarkable ability to re-enact a pattern of behaviour long after it actually occurred, as they are able to hold memories of the observed action, recalling it later and re-enacting it in play.
People often say that "growing up is serious business", which might sound like an oxymoron, but considering all the skills involved, nothing could be truer.
How can you, as parents, encourage imitative and symbolic play?
Given the points outlined above, it is important to encourage your children to get involved in this type of play, but how?
- Leave them free to invent their own games, and allow them the freedom to use "household" objects (as long as they are safe and suited to their age, of course). They are better than you at using their imagination when it comes to playing with whatever you have at hand.
- A colander and a spoon are much better playthings than a smartphone.
- Observe them while they play and you will discover so many little things that you might not have noticed before.
- Do not interrupt while they are busy enjoying "pretend play", but if invited, join in and have fun with them.
- Remember that they act out what they see, so if you notice an aspect of behaviour in their play that you do not like, try to understand why they are re-enacting it and where they have seen it.