Symbolic play has long been considered a fertile context for communicative development (Bruner, 1983, Child's talk: Learning to use language, Oxford University Press, Oxford; Vygotsky, 1962, Thought and language, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA; Vygotsky, 1978, Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA). In the current study, we examined caregiver-infant interaction during symbolic play and compared it to interaction in a comparable but non-symbolic context (i.e., 'functional' play). Fifty-four (N = 54) caregivers and their 18-month-old infants were observed engaging in 20 min of play (symbolic, functional). Play interactions were coded and compared across play conditions for joint attention (JA) and gesture use. Compared with functional play, symbolic play was characterized by greater frequency and duration of JA and greater gesture use, particularly the use of iconic gestures with an object in hand. The results suggest that symbolic play provides a rich context for the exchange and negotiation of meaning, and thus may contribute to the development of important skills underlying communicative development. Statement of contribution Current knowledge Symbolic play has long been linked to communicative development. We do not know the extent to which the social context of symbolic play fosters communicative skills. Present study We test whether key communicative acts (joint attention, gesture) are more common in infant-caregiver dyads during symbolic versus functional play. Joint attention was established more often and sustained for longer periods in symbolic play than in functional play. Infants and caregivers produced more in-hand representational gestures in symbolic compared to functional play.