Mindful of Symbols [Preview]

On the way to learning that one thing can represent another, young children often conflate the real item and its symbol. These errors show how difficult it is to start thinking symbolically

About 20 years ago I had wonderful moments when research takes an unexpected but fruitful turn. I had been studying toddler memory and was beginning a new experiment with two-and-a-half- and three-year-olds. For the project, I had built a small-scale model of a room that was part of my lab. The real space was furnished like a standard living room, with an upholstered couch, an armchair, a cabinet, and so on. The miniature items were as similar as possible: they were the same shape and material, covered with the same fabric and arranged in the same positions. For the study, a child watched as we hid a miniature toy--a plastic dog we dubbed "Little Snoopy"--in the model, which we referred to as "Little Snoopy's room." We then encouraged the child to find "Big Snoopy," a large version of the toy "hiding in the same place in his big room." We wondered whether children could use their memory to figure out where to find the toy in the large room.

The three-year-olds were very successful. After they observed the small toy being placed behind the miniature couch, they ran into the real room and found the large toy behind the real couch. But the two-and-a-half-year-olds, much to my and their parents surprise, failed abysmally. They cheerfully ran into the big room, but most of them had no idea where to look, even though they remembered where the tiny toy was hidden in the miniature room and could readily find it there.

Their failure to use what they knew about the model to draw an inference about the room indicated that they did not appreciate the relation between the model and room. I soon realized that my memory study was instead a study of symbolic understanding and that the younger children's failure might be telling us something interesting about how and when youngsters acquire the ability to understand that one object can stand for another.

What most distinguishes humans from other creatures is our ability to create and manipulate a wide variety of symbolic representations. This capacity enables us to transmit information from one generation to another, making culture possible, and to learn vast amounts without having direct experience--we all know about dinosaurs despite never having met one. Because of the fundamental role of symbolization in almost everything we do, perhaps no aspect of human development is more important than becoming symbol-minded. What could be more fascinating, I concluded, than finding out how young children begin to use and understand symbolic objects and how they come to master some of the symbolic items ubiquitous in modern life?

Pictures Come to Life
The first type of symbolic object infants and young children master is pictures. No symbols seem simpler to adults, but my colleagues and I have discovered that infants initially find pictures perplexing. The problem stems from the duality inherent in all symbolic objects: they are real in and of themselves and, at the same time, are representations of something else. To understand them, the viewer must achieve dual representation: he or she must mentally represent the object as well as the relation between it and what it stands for.

A few years ago I became intrigued by anecdotes suggesting that infants do not appreciate the dual nature of pictures. I would hear of a baby who tried to pick up a depicted apple or to fit a foot into a photograph of a shoe. My colleagues--David H. Uttal of Northwestern University, Sophia L. Pierroutsakos of St. Louis Community College and Karl S. Rosengren of the University of Illinois--and I decided to investigate even though we assumed such behaviors would be rare and therefore difficult to study. Fortunately, we were wrong.

We began testing infants understanding of pictures in a very simple way. We put a book containing highly realistic color photographs of individual objects in front of nine-month-olds. To our surprise, every child in the initial study, and most in our subsequent studies, reached out to feel, rub, pat or scratch the pictures. Sometimes the infants even grasped at the depicted objects as if trying to pick them up off the page.

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