Carol Westby refers to the Symbolic Levels of play development as “not just the addition of skill, but the reorganization of thought.” She defines the following 4 dimensions of play which are used when analyzing play activity:
- Decontextualization and object substitution: allows play to occur with decreasing environmental support or changing reliance on props from realistic to invented; includes increased use of language
- Thematic content: play themes develop from themes in which the children have been frequent active participants, to themes in which they have participated less frequently, to themes they have only observed, and finally to themes they have invented
- Organization of themes: sequential combinations or integrations of actions lead to sequentially and later hierarchically organized play with greater coherence and complexity of action representations
- Self- other relationships or decentration: children adopt the roles of others in pretend activities and include others in their pretend; Theory of Mind development is a critical part of this dimension
In Symbolic Level I, children require life-size, realistic props during pretend play. They only represent events that they frequently participate in such as sleeping, eating, or washing. At this level, there is very little fluidity in play actions. For example, a child may go straight from pretending to be asleep to pretending to eat without any links in between. The beginnings of true verbal communication occur in this level as well. Previously (in the Pre-Symbolic levels) there was only single-word use that was very much context-dependent. So if the child was riding in a car, he might say “car,” but he would not say it if he merely saw a car.
A child in Symbolic Level I would be too young to play with these particular figures (above). Beside the fact that they are very small in size, these would not be good because children in Level I need very life-like props when they play. Notice that these figurines are not very life-like at all since they are basically a head and a tube functioning as the rest of the body. It is not until Symbolic Level VI (3 to 3 ½ years old) that children begin to carry out play using replica toys.