Your toddler has just emptied your kitchen cabinet and put your pasta strainer on their head like a hat. Adorable.

While you’re probably running to find your phone so that you can snap a picture, don’t forget to celebrate when you repack that cabinet — because your child has just reached another milestone on their journey through life. This one’s called symbolic play.

Symbolic play happens when your child starts to use objects to represent (or symbolize) other objects. It also happens when they assign impossible functions, like giving their dolly a cup to hold. It’s a time when creativity really starts to shine.

We can divide the stages of symbolic play into roughly three stages.

Early days (about 3 to 18 months old)

From the magical moment of birth, your child has been building up their knowledge of the world by observing objects and actions. A little later, they learn more through exploring their little world.

Yup, from about 3 months old they’ve been putting their fingers and toys into their mouths to figure them out. At around 8 months old, they graduate to using their toys to make a racket. So when your little one bangs their rattle on the floor, grin and bear it, because this is the start of symbolic play.

Give them a couple of months more, and they’ll start pushing their toy truck back and forth to the sound effects of “vroom, vroom.”

Toddler at play (18 months to 3 years old)

At this stage, your child will play alone or side-by-side with other children their age.

You can watch for the precursors of real symbolic play: At first your child will follow the rules and play with their toys in conventional ways. You’ll see them piling people into their passenger train, brushing their dolly’s hair with your hairbrush, and drinking water from their play tea set. Some experts call this functional play.

Then things will start to get more interesting. Your child will start to use one object to represent a different object. That’s because they can now imagine an object and don’t need to have the concrete object in front of them.

A wooden block or empty paper roll can become a cell phone. You may be lucky enough to catch them speaking to themselves or calling you at work. Your child may feed their teddy bear using their play dishes. These are the first, simple steps of symbolic play. Hurray!

Preschooler pretending (3 to 5 years old)

At this age, children start playing side-by-side and noticing what others kids do. The experts call it associative play. And their symbolic play evolves as they work with some sort of plan, assign roles, and act out sequenced steps.

Your child is able to plan with their friends what they’ll play. Notice how their play becomes a mini-drama: “Let’s play Mommy and Daddy. Now it’s time to put the baby to sleep.” You may find your child talking to themselves and sticking a spoon into their dolly’s mouth: “You don’t need to be afraid. Just say ‘aah.’”

Just how important is symbolic play? Very, according to Russian psychiatrist Lev Vygotsky. For Vygotsky, who published his theories in the early 20th century, playing make-believe is essential to a child’s healthy development. Symbolic play is the way children overcome their impulsiveness and develop the thought-out behaviors that will help them with more complicated cognitive functions.

But there’s more. Symbolic play is a stepping stone to literacy and numeracy. When we write letters and numbers, we’re using symbols for what we want to convey. When children are engaged in symbolic play, they’re practicing this very concept.

Researchers note that a child who follows a sequence when playing (stirring milk and then feeding the doll) will also be able to manage syntax in language (“I need paper and crayons”).

Here’s a list of five areas that are strengthened when your child engages in symbolic play:

  • Cognitive skills. When your child exercises their imagination, they create new neural pathways and learn how to think creatively. This skill will help them with problem solving as they grow older. As they play, they act out experiences that they’ve encountered and hardwire into their brains how to deal with them.
  • Social skills. Symbolic play teaches a child to see the “other.” Since some kids may think differently than them, your child learns how to cooperate and negotiate.
  • Self-esteem. Symbolic play exercises cognitive skills, as we mentioned. Your child needs to come up with a plan and a way to carry it out. Goal achieved? That’s a great boost to developing self-esteem.
  • Language. Your child needs a developed memory to understand that an object can stand for something other than itself. This is the first step in language acquisition. Play is a great way to build up their vocabulary.
  • Motor skills. Play involves action. As your child plays, they develop fine and gross motor skills. Watch your kids at play and you’ll most likely hear both sets of skills being practiced: “Who spilled out all the beads? Now I have to pick them up!” mingles with “Last one to the end of the yard is a rotten egg!”

Now you’re convinced and ready to nudge your child towards symbolic play. Here are some great ideas on how to encourage symbolic play at the three stages we discussed above:

Early days (about 3 to 18 months old)

  • Expose your infant to a variety of toys and rotate them so baby doesn’t get bored. Rattles, balls, blocks, and stack-up cups aren’t just great to play with in the conventional way. Show your child how to bang them against different surfaces and enjoy the different sounds that are produced.
  • Sit opposite each other and spread out your legs to make a frame. Roll balls and cars back and forth. Add noises to increase the fun.

Toddler at play (18 months to 3 years old)

  • Hold a tea party with your child’s favorite stuffed toys. Name the dishes and cutlery as you set them out. Use bottle caps, yogurt containers, and other recyclable items instead of the toy tea set. And then have fun feeding the toys. Who’s got a tummy ache from eating too much candy?
  • Let your child join you in the kitchen. Give them an empty bowl and spoon to stir their own “cake batter.” (But be ready to give them a lick of the real stuff.)

Preschooler pretending (3 to 5 years old)

  • Keep a chest of old clothes, shoes, scarves, hats, bags, and sunglasses so that your child can dress up and pretend to be someone else. Bring it out when your child has playdates, and you’ll have at least half an hour of quiet.
  • If you’re brave, you can temporarily turn a corner of your yard or living room into a grocery, doctor’s office, or veterinary clinic. Think ahead and keep all the empty cereal boxes and rinsed-out cans for a rainy day.
  • Set up a tent using chairs and blankets so that your child can go camping.

Need some extra motivation? Research shows that there’s a connection between symbolic play and a mother’s response. The more actions a child carries out, the more the mother makes eye contact, smiles, and touches the child — and then, the more the child plays. It’s part of a great cycle, so start playing and give your child a head start on gaining valuable skills.

It’s all fun and games until you start worrying about your child who isn’t engaging in symbolic play.

First of all — breathe. Not all children reach developmental stages at the same time. When we talk about kids, we’re talking about a frame of reference, not a bus schedule.

Keep in mind that there’s a wide range of normal. But also, a lot of parents wonder about autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A 2012 study showed that there were no differences between children with ASD and children with other developmental delays when it came to engaging in symbolic play — but that there was a high correlation between play, language, and cognition.

If your child is past preschool age and consistently plays alone and repeats the same actions endlessly (lining up their stuffed toys or putting together the same puzzle) — or if your child won’t take part in symbolic play and won’t cooperate or communicate with other kids — you may want to discuss your concerns with your pediatrician.

It’s not just child’s play. Symbolic play helps your little one to develop in so many areas. Enjoy this sweet milestone and encourage pretend play when you can — all too quickly they’ll trade that pasta strainer hat for real-life worries.